The Trade Secret
Nat Bramble is a young servant who has learned Persian in order to interpret for his master, Sir Anthony Sherley, an ambassador of Elizabeth the First to the Shah of Persia. When Nat unwittingly embezzles 300 Dutch dollars from Sir Anthony, he flees Isfahan and joins up with Darius, a love-sick Persian poet, to find a secret oil well and make their fortune. They succeed, and an unfortunate event forces Nat to accompany Sir Anthony on a Persian embassy back to Europe. In Venice, he discovers a deadly secret about his master. Nat escapes from him and returns to London.
The title seems to have two interpretations: the value of oil, and trade as a means of bettering oneself. Nat does not want to remain a servant all his life. The convolutions of the novel’s plot make summary impossible. Nat suffers endless scrapes, survives and triumphs, only to have another catastrophic fall. Newman is terrifically imaginative and inventive in the adventures and trials that his hero undergoes. Yet Nat is no picaresque hero, a mere catalyst for the plot, but is a three-dimensional character like Darius. The settings are superb. Isfahan and Persian life are well drawn, but Newman excels himself in the Tudor London scenes. The City, the activity on Thames and the Pool of London, and the teeming life on London Bridge are wonderfully alive and vivid. The politics and ethos of the time are made convincing. He even pulls a final trick and has an unsavoury villain turn out to have been morally in the right.
This is not a book to start unless you have plenty of time, because it is well-nigh impossible to put down. A tremendous read; highly recommended.