Death came aboard with the cormorant. It arrived on the seventh day of our voyage…
This is the secret report of disgraced former Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, written on the mail ship Tankerville en route to Philadelphia. His mission is to aid the civil servant charged with carrying a vital treaty to Congress that will prevent the Americans from joining with the French in their war against Britain.
When the civil servant meets an unfortunate ‘accidental’ end, Laurence becomes the one person standing between Britain and disaster. It is his great chance to redeem himself at Whitehall – except that his predecessor has taken the secret of the treaty’s hiding place to his watery grave.
As the ship is searched, Laurence quickly discovers that his fellow passengers – among them fugitive French aristocrats, an American plantation owner, an Irish actress and her performing bear – all have their own motives to find the treaty for themselves. And as a second death follows the first, Laurence must turn sleuth in order to find the killer before he has an ‘accident’ of his own.
I loved that atmospheric opening. The cormorant sitting there on the bow of the ship, nonchalantly drying it’s wings in the wind and oblivious to the superstitions it’s arousing in the crew. If you ever wanted to know what it was like to take a voyage from Falmouth to Philadelphia in the 18th Century then look no further than this novel from Leonora Nattrass. It is so detailed and grabs the reader immediately, within a couple of pages the ship was as real to me as the cat sitting on my lap. Everything from the period appropriate language to the workings of the ship come together to entice you back into the 1790s. I felt like all my senses were engaged from the feel of cold sea spray to the sound of a passenger throwing up over the stern rail. The discomfort and claustrophobia of being stuck on the ship, at one point for three days near the French coast thanks to the prevailing winds, is very apparent. I loved the little details like the full ‘piss-pot’ sliding up and down the deck, the cacophony of the dog barking incessantly at the turkeys they are transporting, and the bear cub that turned out to have ‘tolerable table manners’. The author also emphasises how cramped the cabins are, with Jago almost able to reach out and touch both walls. At least its his own space though and somewhere he can relax, which he does with a drop or two of laudanum to combat the stress he’s feeling from all the subterfuge.
I hadn’t read Black Drop, the first outing with Laurence Jago, but I think this stands well alone. It’s a clever idea to take your characters and put them into a totally different situation. Laurence is a likeable fellow, a disgraced foreign office clerk, with a few downfalls in his character. Not only does he like a drop of laudanum, he’s a little bit gullible when it comes to a pretty face. He is tasked with helping a civil servant who’s carrying an important treaty to the Americans, to prevent them joining the French in their war against the British. When they come up against a French warship in the channel the treaty needs to be hidden, so when a death occurs on board not only is the treaty lost, but there might be a murderer on board. There’s such a cast of characters on board: two French aristocrats escaping the changes in the run up to the revolution; an Irish actress; a man who is possibly a freed slave; a plantation owner; and a dancing bear! Most of them have a vested interest in the treaty and all of which could be a murderer. Of course Jago can’t rule out one of the crew being involved, perhaps hiding the treaty for financial gain. As for the murder, they are investigating a locked room mystery, it’s just that this room is a cabin.
I loved how the tension built as Jago tries to find the treaty and solve the murder, especially as the stakes grow ever higher and Jago himself could become a target for the murderer. I became more attached to him as the story progressed because I felt he was a bit of an innocent, totally out of his depth and with poor judgement, such as with Lizzie. He’s perpetually confused, which isn’t surprising considering his shipmates and their antics. One of the aristocrats holds a seance, the crew mates are full of maritime stories and superstitions, including the usual giant sea creatures, plus they’re eating slop and feel exhausted. I wasn’t surprised Jago’s brain was muddled!. Aside from the subterfuge and untrustworthy passengers, there’s the constant underlying tension of being unable to get off the boat and knowing that whoever committed the murder is still there too. Once they’ve left the sight of land, these misfits are stuck together for weeks. Oh, and I forgot about the pirates. This is a fabulous adventure, a murder mystery some full on comedy here and there. I’m now looking forward to going back and reading Jago’s first adventure.