Dead Reckoning fast forwards the life of C. Northcote Parkinson’s character Richard Delancey by four years picking up in late 1805. When we left Delancey in Touch and Go he was a recently made commander on the eve of the Peace of Amiens. Now he is a married post captain with one commission, in the 28-gun frigate HMS Vengeance, under his belt.
He receives his orders to take command of the aging 32-gun frigate, HMS Laura, to the Far East with trepidation. He is deeply in love with his wife, an actress and only barely socially acceptable, and doesn’t look forward to the long separation. But he is not financially secure enough to decline the commission and spend the rest of his life on half-pay.
Major spoilers follow.
Delancey’s orders call for him to be a part of the expedition under Admiral Sir Home Popham which is to seize the Cape of Good Hope from Dutch control. The expedition is successful and Laura plays only a minor role. She then is ordered to convoy merchantmen to Canton.
The return voyage from Canton to India is made more interesting by the presence of a French squadron consisting of a 80-gun ship of the line and a 44-gun frigate operating along the route to be taken by the fleet. Originally, the convoy was to have been protected by Laura and a 64-gun ship of the line but the ship of the line was damaged en route and Delancey will bear sole responsibility for the safety of the fleet.
Through a series of strategems, Delancey is able to maul the French frigate and deter the ship of the line from engaging the convoy. He arrives safely at his destination and receives the thanks of the East India Company.
He makes the acquaintance of the British commander on station, Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, who gives him orders to “sink, burn, or destroy” a French privateer that his causing havoc in the Straits of Malacca. Delancey confides in Pellew that he’d like Laura, which is increasingly unseaworthy, sent home. Pellew can’t do that but he does give Delancey orders assigning him to the squadron at the Cape of Good Hope after completing his destruction of the privateer.
Delancey quickly ascertains that the privateer must have access to confidential information in order to plan its forays. Delancey uses the information available on the circumstances of the capture of the ships it has taken to locate its base in the Kapuas River in Borneo and destroy the base and the privateer. He does so with the assistance of Dayak headhunters and his long lost derelict brother.
Between the battle with the privateer and disease, Laura is becoming severely undermanned. Experienced officers have been promoted and the fine edge Delancey put on Laura’s performance on the voyage out from England has become eroded.
1809 finds Delancey desperately homesick and attached to the squadron of Commodore Josias Rowley who is charged with capturing the French islands of Reunion and Mauritius. Delancey throws himself into the task. He discovers hints that a French spy he has encountered in Ireland and Borneo and is determined to capture the man. Delancey is present for the disastrous defeat of Captain Samuel Pym at Grand Port, Mauritius, and prevails upon Rowley to not accept the defeat and fight on.
Laura fights her last battle in the invasion of Mauritius and Delancey finds himself given command of a captured French 44-gun frigate, Minerve.
Delancey is anticipating being sent home in Minerve, but is disappointed. A British brig has mutinied and he is given orders to track down the ship and the mutineers before departing for Britain. He quickly discovers the ship but his investigation arouses his sympathies for the mutineers. He is desperately short of men and decides to risk his career by pressing the mutineers into Minerve under false pretenses rather than see them hanged.
Delancey’s report to the admiral at Mauritius presents another problem. The British plan to capture French ships arriving unaware that Mauritius is in British hands is foiled by signals transmitted from the island. Delancey, sensing the presence of the mysterious French spy, sets out to find him. He does so and reveals a ruthlessness we haven’t seen before.
As he returns from this expedition he finds Minerve under urgent orders to pursue two French warships which appeared and retreated. They turn out to be a 40-gun French frigate and a large corvette. Minerve has a full strength and trained crew and her smart handling by Delancey quickly forces both French ships to strike their colors.
Delancey arrives home to acclaim, a knighthood, and an overdue reunion with his wife.