The Blood Black Flag, by Steve Goble

In the 18th Century, Spider John Rush, a carpenter, has somehow fallen into a life of piracy.  At the beginning of The Bloody Black Flag he and his friend Ezra are being rowed out to join their new ship, Plymouth Dream.  Very shortly after they set sail Ezra is found dead.  The crew assumes he fell while drunk and hit his head—an empty flask was found near his body—but Spider knows that his friend was murdered.  Ezra didn’t drink.

Thus in general outline the novel is like an Agatha Christie mystery, with a limited cast of suspects, but the mystery of Ezra’s murder is enclosed in a larger puzzle of intrigue, the details of which you’ll have to read the book to discover.

But don’t be put off by this brief sketch of the storyline because The Bloody Black Flag succeeds in ways that a conventional mystery novel couldn’t even approach.  The characters are very well drawn, from the psychotic ship’s captain to the drunken doctor/cook to the various crew members and Spider John himself.  The dialogue is superb and the author’s recreation of what life really must have been like on a pirate ship is compelling.  The nautical details are strikingly convincing and Goble manages to capture the sense of desperation of men who are criminals because such is the fate that life has forced upon them.  They are damned souls and they know it, but some of them find ways to preserve their sense of integrity in the midst of moral squalor.

I really enjoyed this novel.  It seduces us into its own little world, never breaking that most fragile of illusions, the discovery of a window through which we can witness the lives of people we know are imaginary and yet in whom we still somehow believe.  This is the chief pleasure of reading fiction, and The Bloody Black Flag delivers.