In March 1804, President Thomas Jefferson receives some shocking intelligence. The U.S. Navy frigate Philadelphia has run aground a few miles off Tripoli and has been captured by Tripoli’s ruthless ruler, Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli. Nearly all 300 officers and men are taken hostage, and a high ransom is demanded for their release. American ships had previously been dispatched to the Mediterranean in response to the mayhem caused by Barbary pirates on merchant vessels from countries that did not pay tributes to Tripoli, Algeria, or Tunis—the North African coastal regencies. Disbursing money to “buy peace” offends Jefferson’s sensibilities; instead, he wishes to “negotiate peace” from a position of strength. Furthermore, burdened with war debt, the new nation can ill afford to pay tributes. When diplomatic and naval maneuvers fail, Jefferson puts into motion a daring covert action plan to overthrow Yusuf and rescue the American hostages.
Kevin Foley’s historical fiction account of the events leading up to the battle of Derne, America’s first war on terror, is attention-grabbing. Quotes from newspaper headlines from those days—“Terrorists … American hostages … regime change … clandestine naval operations”—are, amazingly, just as relevant today as they were over two centuries ago. The novel transports us from President Jefferson’s cabinet room, where we eavesdrop on heated discussions on how to deal with the Barbary pirates and whether to put “boots on the ground,” to American ships in the Mediterranean exchanging cannon fire with the buccaneers, to Tripoli’s dungeons, where incarcerated American sailors are suspended by chains. Foley’s extensive research shows in his realistic descriptions of the settings, dialogue, and battle scenes. Also, the cinematic technique of setting the opening and closing chapters in the present day adds to the realism of the story. Highly recommended.