Ramage and the Guillotine opens in the summer of 1801. Ramage is home awaiting employment after his exploits in Ramage’s Prize and Britain is on tenterhooks expecting Napoleon to invade.
The Pitt government has fallen and Ramage’s patron, First Lord of Admiralty, Lord Spencer, is out of office and is replaced by Lord St. Vincent, someone with whom Ramage is on equally good terms.
Major spoilers follow.
At a ball Ramage is asked to meet St. Vincent and Lord Nelson.
His mission is simple. He is to find his own way to the French harbor of Boulogne and evaluate the condition of the French invasion fleet now under construction there as well as the intensity of the ship building effort. Ramage has been asked to take the mission because he speaks fluent Italian, very good French, and has a well deserved reputation for interpreting his orders broadly. He asks for three of his former Tritons to be assigned to him for the mission and he receives them.
The use of a British navy warship to insert him into Boulogne, convey situation reports, and extract him at the end of the mission is not a satisfactory solution so he uses family connections to make contact with smugglers operating out Dover. In the event he finds the master of the smuggling ship is a navy deserter whom he’d had flogged aboard Triton.
As it turns out, the man is thankful Ramage had him flogged for drunkenness rather than hanged or flogged through the fleet for mutiny and energetically applies himself to the task at hand.
Ramage does the basic elements of his task well. He plays the role of a Genoese shipbuilder who is traveling to Boulogne to assist with building the ships and barges for the invasion of Italy. He is assisted by the smuggling operation in Boulogne which bears a great deal of ill will against the forces of the Revolution. He begins to pass messages to Lord Nelson, via the smugglers, which lead one to conclude the invasion cannot happen because of the lack of men and materiel to construct and man the fleet.
The operation could be fortuitously brought to a definitive conclusion by a series of serendipitous events. A messenger travels every week from Boulogne to Paris to report on the status of the invasion fleet. As it turns out the brother of Ramage’s inn keeper is also an inn keeper in Amiens. His daughter and the courier have a budding romance and the courier stops there en route to Paris and again on his way back to Boulogne.
Ramage conceives a plan, using the skill of one of his seamen, Stafford, a former locksmith and picklock, to gain access to the dispatches which will definitively describe the current inventory of vessels, the production schedule, and shortcomings in men an equipment.
Stafford is surprised while burglarizing the courier’s room, his luck having run out after three previous successful expeditions, and escapes. Suspicion, however, immediately falls upon Ramage. He is arrested and his forged documents can’t withstand close scrutiny brought about by the investigation. No one understands what he is up to, but in the climate of Revolutionary France, being a foreigner is sufficient to see him sentenced to the guillotine.
Fortunately, the smuggling network brings its forces to bear to effect his release and he returns to the fleet after nearly becoming a friendly fire casualty.
This is one of the least satisfying of the Ramage novels thus far. It does little to move Ramage’s story forward, we learn little that we didn’t know about him, and there are familiar echoes of Drumbeat when he, along with Stafford, burglarized the quarters of a Spanish admiral. The success he meets with is just a little too pat, to be credible. Being inserted cold into an enemy port with instructions to discern a closely held national secret of your enemy is a tall task to accomplish yet Ramage does just that. The series of fortuitous events he encounters is also just a bit too pat. Pope does manage to get you to temporarily send your left brain on a vacation and the story is enjoyable despite its flaws.