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Review: The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, by Robert Hough
Anansi, 2015. 342 pp. $16.

Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life, but I didn’t know that such things as chess hustlers existed, nor that they prowled seventeenth-century London’s coffee shops and taverns, looking for fools and their money. But in this well-told, riveting novel, which begins in 1664, young Benny Wand has a difficult choice: Spend twelve years in Newgate for having fleeced the wrong gentleman or be deported to Jamaica. Though Benny has never been to sea and has no apparent skills other than his chess mastery, he instantly chooses the New World, for he rightly expects a dozen years behind bars will be a death sentence by slow torture.

Alexandre Exquemuelin's 1707 portrait of Henry Morgan, painted almost twenty years after the subject's death (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Alexandre Exquemelin’s 1707 portrait of Henry Morgan, done almost twenty years after the subject’s death (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But on arrival in Port Royal, called “the wickedest city on earth,” he quickly realizes that his prospects are dim indeed. An acre of transported criminals like himself crowds a beach, living on rum and roast turtle, with no hope except the rumored reappearance of Henry Morgan, a privateer licensed by the British Crown. Morgan’s reputation for daring, and his ability to liberate Spanish gold from its former owners have the societal castoffs excited, and no wonder. Not only is it possible for men who wouldn’t know sky from ocean to become rich virtually overnight, but, as Benny learns when the fabled captain shows up, his leader has no use for the social barriers that have kept his new crewmen down all their lives. In return for obedience, Morgan offers something extraordinary–advancement based on merit.

Benny soon profits thereby, for Morgan fancies himself a chess player and, hearing of Benny’s prowess, invites him to his quarters for a game. What a heady experience for a young man who’s never come closer to power than being on the wrong side of a judge’s bench. Benny revels in their contests and in Morgan’s free admission that his deck swab’s skill easily surpasses his own, the first praise he’s ever received. What’s more, he asks Benny his secret, only to be told there is none. Victory, he explains, depends on seeing what’s in front of you, what might be lurking just out of sight, and in planning for both.

Naturally, Morgan recognizes the inherent military wisdom in Benny’s approach, and you won’t be surprised to hear that, little by little, the captain relies on him for advice in the field. However, though Morgan listens, what always eludes him is Benny’s gift at anticipating what the enemy will do next. The adventures make for tense reading, but there’s much more here. The relationship between the two men explores the nature of power (and how it corrupts); the fury unleashed in men whom society has humiliated; and how money influences both.

For instance, when Benny and his mates are filling their pockets during a successful raid, he feels vindicated:

Sheer glory this was. Every step through that steaming and fearsome jungle had been worth it, for with each pilfered necklace and pocketed earring I was getting even with all those who’d made my life miserable in England. I’m talking about unforgiving landlords and brutal schoolteachers and truncheon-swinging police and priests with fat roaming hands. Sod the world was running through my head while we emptied one house after another, and it was intoxicating as Kill Devil [a potent alcoholic drink].

The problem with intoxication, however, is that it can possess you, and Benny’s no exception. Having noticed Morgan’s growing corruption, he worries about his own, and whether he’s become his captain’s creature, caught up in another man’s game. Is Benny a pawn, or is he the man who can save Morgan from himself?

Hough’s narrative moves swiftly but seldom compresses an emotional turning point. I like the vivid prose, which, in Benny’s salty, worldly voice, makes his character come alive. Morgan comes through too, though less clearly, perhaps the drawback of this particular first-person approach. None of the other characters seems fully fledged, but the key relationship is so complex and delivers so much that this matters less than it might otherwise. At times, I wondered whether Benny’s language or thought process sounded too modern, but that too shouldn’t stop anyone from reading this entertaining, thought-provoking novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.