Picture this: James Bond in a red coat, tight white breeches, and a powdered wig topped off with an odd mésalliance between a top hat and a cowboy hat.
But the year is 1803, the Napoleonic Wars are grinding along, and the name is Grey, Thomas Grey, a captain in the Royal Marines (seagoing British soldiers in the age of fighting sail.) As this rip-roaring novel speeds thrillingly along, however, we rarely see Grey in uniform, first because, as a grieving widower, he decides to start life over as a lumber merchant in Boston, Massachusetts; and second because the Marines are his cover, and he’s really a secret agent in the forerunner of MI6.
Of course he’d be wasted on wood. He’s barely set sail for Boston when adventures overtake him, beginning with a flaming battle at sea that first reveals his superpowers, which include swordsmanship, marksmanship, fist-fighting, swimming, climbing, and bomb-making, as well as military tactics, seamanship, and advanced social skills. Under cover in France, he soon shows other talents as a double agent, gambler, and master of the risqué new dance called the waltz. He charms lovely ladies and foils highway robbers. Challenged by both a duel and a newfangled air rifle, he triumphs.
In his debut novel, J. H. Gelernter engagingly acknowledges the influences of Ian Fleming, Bernard Cornwell, and above all, Patrick O’Brian. His publishers also point to O’Brian by using the same book design for Hold Fast as for their hugely successful Aubrey-Maturin novels. Gelernter is slightly less adept at handling dialogue and period manners than O’Brian, but the only real disappointment is the book’s brevity. And yet, although constantly wounded, Grey is clearly almost immortal, so we can hope for more.