Note and warning. This synopsis will include spoilers. Spoilers don’t bother me because I usually read the last chapter of a book first. I understand YMMV.
I’m doing what has become my annual post on this blog on the latest Alan Lewrie naval adventure by Dewey Lambdin. This one is title Reefs and Shoals.
January 1805 finds Lewrie still in command of HMS Reliant frigate and heavily engaged with the lovely and available Lydia Stangbourne. Lydia, who we first met in the previous Lewrie adventure, is something of a bookend for Lewrie. She has his healthy libido and a reputation for dissolute behavior. Unfortunately, for her and for Lewrie, her reputation is undeserved and the result of a smear campaign conducted by her vengeful ex-husband after she sought the unthinkable: a divorce because of his beastly appetites.
She is a good match for Lewrie on many levels but now that he’s found a woman who is completely uninterested in matrimony he, being Lewrie, isn’t sure that is what he wants. The relationship is complicated by the fact that Lydia’s brother, Percy (naturally), has married Eudoxia Durshenko (Baltic Gambit, A King’s Trade), an old Lewrie love interest — though involuntarily not an intimate one.
While awaiting orders, Lewrie renews acquaintance with an old friend, Captain Benjamin Rodgers (Jester’s Fortune and The Gun Ketch). Rodgers now has on board his 74-gun HMS Aeneas Midshipman Sewallis Lewrie (there is some confusion about the ship which I will touch upon later). Lewrie and his son have a meeting that is colored by the fact that Sewallis not only joined the navy against Lewrie’s wishes but he forged a letter from Lewrie to Rodgers to get the appointment. How well Sewallis is adopting to naval life is left ambiguous but Lewrie and son reach a rapprochement on the subject of how Sewallis entered the navy and his future there.
Over dinner, Sewallis, who still adores his mother and hates Lewrie’s many infidelities, seems to warm to Lydia. We’ll see how this works out for him.
In mid-January 1805, Lewrie receives Admiralty sailing orders to go to Bermuda and then the Bahamas to suppress French and Spanish privateers operating in the Caribbean and out of Spanish Florida. He is appointed commodore and is told to assemble a squadron of suitable craft from those he finds on station in either Bermuda or the Bahamas. As part of his duty he is to call upon the British consuls in Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah and have them encourage the American government to take all possible steps to preserve its neutrality.
Ed. note: A complaint that I’ll make at this stage of the review and not revisit is that at points Lambdin emulates Dudley Pope’s penchant for having a travelogue substitute for narrative. During the ensuing voyage we learn much more about the magnetic deviations surrounding Bermuda and the nature of the waters there and the topography of the Florida Keys… neither of which have diddly squat to do with the story… than we have any right to know.
Bermuda is something of a backwater of the Empire. It is in no danger from the French and it is of no use to British commerce. Here Lewrie finds the first of what will become his squadron. The HMS Lizard sloop under the eccentric naval officer and naturalist Lieutenant Tristam Bury. From there Lewrie proceeds to the Bahamas.
The senior officer on station is none other than his old and unpleasant acquaintance Captain the Honorable Francis Forrester (The French Admiral, HMS Cockerel, A King’s Trade, King, Ship, and Sword). Though taken aback by Lewrie wearing the star of the Order of the Bath and medals for the Battles of St. Vincent and Camperdown, Forrester tries to pull rank on Lewrie and make him part of Forrester’s rather inactive command. Lewrie, as we might expect, is having none of it and forces Forrester to part with two of his smaller combatants: HMS Thorn brig (12) under Lieutenant Peter Darling and HMS Firefly sloop (8) under Lieutenant Oliver Lovett. Neither of whom are in good odor with Forrester. Forrester does so grudgingly and remains mesmerized by the danger of an imminent French and Spanish invasion which on one save him perceives.
While in port he goes ashore in Nassau and is hit by nostalgia for his time there with Caroline. The house they had occupied is now in ruins and occupied by soldiers and hookers making for something of a metaphor to his marriage to Caroline.
Their plan is to patrol the Bahamas Channel into the Florida Straits and from their sail up the Atlantic seaboard of Florida searching for privateers. After leaving the smaller vessels to establish a loose blockade of St. Augustine, Lewrie will check the significant Southern United States ports for evidence of privateers operating there in violation of US neutrality and enlist the British consuls in his operation.
True to form, Lewrie sets about developing aggressive spirit and independence in his subordinate commanders while at the same time intensively drilling them in what he expects of them in action.
Their first success comes in surprising a pair of small Spanish privateers in Biscayne Bay.
Ed note: Here we are visited with a perennial Lambdin annoyance: the rendering of broken accented English into written dialogue. But I won’t mention this further other than to say be forewarned.
The approach to Wilmington also swamps Lewrie in a wave of nostalgia, it was here that he met his wife, Caroline, during the evacuation of troops and Loyalists that followed Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown.The British consul there is none other than Lewrie’s good friend Christopher Cashman (Sea of Grey, Havoc’s Sword, A King’s Trade, Baltic Gambit, Troubled Waters). At an informal dinner with Cashman, Lewrie’s diplomatic skills are tested to the limits when he meets Patriot side of his Loyalist wife’s family.
Ed note: There is an anomaly in the story telling as Lewrie is asked if he has ever been to Charleston before and he says that he was there during the Revolution. He forgets his pursuit of Calico Jack Finney into Charleston harbor and sinking him in broad daylight which would undoubtedly still be waterfront legend.
Anchored in the harbor is the French merchantman Otarie, which is obviously a privateer. While engaging in a battle of wits with the French consul, Lewrie renews acquaintances with the Douglas McGilliveray, the nominal uncle of Lewrie’s illegitimate son, Desmond McGilliveray. Lewrie finds Desmond is prospering in the new American navy. He also engages is a public and most undiplomatic dispute with the French privateer captain.
His visit is Savannah is mostly unsatisfactory. He finds the British consul to be completely disinterested in both his job and in Lewrie’s mission. By deduction, Lewrie concludes that any privateers operating out of American bases must be doing so from Georgia as he is confident the British consuls in Wilmington and Charleston would have ferreted out any such operation. The Georgia coast line has dozens of places for a small ships to shelter and it borders Spanish Florida. While anchored at Savannah, Lewrie also observes some suspicious barge traffic that he can’t adequately explain.
Lewrie rejoins his small squadron off St. Augustine and finds they have been energetically employed in burning and pillaging Spanish commerce. In the process they seize some fishing vessels which they arm and use to explore inlets too shallow for the squadron’s ships. While trolling off Castillo de San Marcos, Lewrie receives a dispatch from Forrester telling him that he expects Lewrie to join him in sailing to Antigua to defend British possessions against a Franco-Spanish fleet he believes is lurking nearby. Lewrie decides Forrester is jousting with his own imagination and decides to pursue his Admiralty orders. The dispatches also alert him to the fact that the French fleet at Toulon has slipped Nelson’s blockade and no one is sure of their destination.
Ed note: As an aside, Lambdin’s internal consistency is not all that it could be. Not only does he pass over Lewrie’s connection with Charleston but he first has HMS Aeneas under Benjamin Rodgers with Sewallis as a midshipman and later has the same ship under another old friend, Thomas Charlton (Jester’s Fortune , Troubled Waters, King’s Captain, King, Ship, and Sword, and Invasion Year), with his older son Hugh as a midshipman, though we were previously told Charlton commanded HMS Pegasus Invasion Year.
Their lucky break happens when they encounter and take the French privateer Insolent in the waters of Little Bahama Bank. Among the crew are two British subjects who, despite having papers declaring themselves naturalized American citizens, are rightfully afraid of being hanged. They reveal the inner workings of how the privateers operate.
Now cognizant of the location, methods, and timing of the privateer operation, Lewrie mounts an expedition into American waters to eliminate them.
There is a brisk battle in the St Mary’s River between the boats of Reliant and her consorts that results in two French privateers being captured and two prizes returned to their rightful owner as well as putting the operation responsible for supplying the privateers and disposing of prizes out of business.
Lewrie arrives in Nassau to find a letter from the Admiral commanding the Leeward Islands that he is now temporary Senior Naval Officer Commanding the Bahamas. Forrester, it seems, not only ran afoul of the admiral by abandoning his station in search for a phantom fleet but he ran his ship aground in English Harbour. He is now awaiting court-martial and almost certain loss of active employment assuming he can avoid being cashiered.