Keane’s Challenge (Captain James Keane)

Written by Iain Gale
Review by Tom Williams

This is the sequel to Keane’s Company (reviewed in HNR 65) and is probably best read after that book.

Keane is an exploring officer in the Corps of Guides under Wellington during the Peninsular War. In the story, Keane describes himself (and is described as) a “spy,” and he often reports directly to Wellington. He moves from being a combat soldier to being a scout, to hunting down enemy agents as what we would nowadays call a counterintelligence officer, and back to being a combat soldier. He kidnaps enemy generals and seduces their mistresses, advises commanders on the disposition of their troops, develops new ciphers and is attached to Portuguese irregulars to ensure that they stay loyal to the Allied cause. A summary of the plot comes close to suggesting that he wins the war single-handed. While there is a fair bit of reasonably convincing military detail, the plot eventually veers off into a series of Boys’ Own Paper adventures and implausible triumphs.

The Guides were indeed actually more like scouts, tasked with mapping the land and observing the movement of enemy troops, and they reported to one of Wellington’s staff officers. The version of the Guides that Gale gives us certainly makes for a better story than the real thing, and having junior officers talk directly to generals is a common narrative device in historical novels (although the Wellington we see here bears little resemblance to contemporary accounts). The degree of fictionalisation in this approach combines with carelessness over details until the whole thing fails to ring quite true as a novel of the Peninsular War. On the other hand, it is pacily written and succeeds as a spy thriller set against a more-or-less credible historical background.