Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review: "A Matter of Honor," William C. Hammond

By Paul Carrier

The first novel in what is scheduled to be a series, A Matter of Honor focuses on the early years of the U.S. Navy by uniting its protagonist, Midshipman Richard Cutler of Massachusetts, with the legendary John Paul Jones.

Could a seafaring novel that features Jones as a major character fails? Perhaps, but not in this case. A Matter of Honor is a delight, a panoramic tale with a cast of characters that includes Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, the Marquis de Lafayette and Horatio Nelson.

Cutler first sails under Rogers aboard Ranger, which defeats a British ship at sea before Rogers stages a daring raid on Britain itself. Taken prisoner during the raid, Cutler eventually is released into the care of his English uncle, with the understanding that he will sit out the rest of the war. Of course, he quickly throws himself back into the fight.

This obviously well-researched novel includes the occasional detour into unrelated bits of history, which strengthens the book rather than detracting from it. For example, a brief recap of the 1346 Battle of Crécy offers an interesting diversion.

Fortunately for the reader, Cutler is ubiquitous, which seems implausible, but enlivens the plot. He finds himself aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, captained by Jones, when it defeats HMS Serapis in British waters in 1779.

Two years later, Cutler is conveniently serving as an acting lieutenant aboard a French ship when French naval forces allied with the American rebels converge on Yorktown, Virginia, to bottle up the British troops that have been hemmed in by American and French land forces there.

Hammond lays on the nautical lingo, with detailed descriptions of a ship’s sails, masts, yards and rigging. But that’s standard fare for novels in this genre, and the jargon does not interfere with a landlubber’s enjoyment of the action.

I do have two quibbles, though. When Cutler and his British bride find themselves in Barbados during a break in the military action, the novel slides into the “bodice ripper” zone, with some cringe-inducing purple prose as the newlyweds do what newlyweds do.

In addition, I found the author’s decision to have French naval officers speak French, with no English translation, disconcerting. That’s all well and good for readers who speak French and can translate for themselves, but what of those who cannot?