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Review: Hold Fast, by J. H. Gelernter
Norton, 2021. 238 pp. $26

Thomas Grey, late of the Royal Marines and His Majesty’s Secret Service, intends to sail to Boston and take a job with a lumber merchant. The year is 1803, the Napoleonic Wars have reached a respite, and Grey wishes to seize his chance to get out while he can. Having lost his beloved wife to a French raid on the merchantman on which the Greys were traveling, he’ll to the war no more.

Ah, but not so fast. A privateer attacks the ship on which he’s bound across the Atlantic, and news comes that Napoleon has revoked the Treaty of Amiens, resuming the war against Britain. Grey, with much derring-do, helps repel the attack, but the damaged ship must make landfall in neutral Portugal for refitting. While he’s there, circumstances hand him a great opportunity to pretend to switch sides and dupe French intelligence with disinformation. Rest assured that our hero’s game of double agent will lead him into many tight situations, as he must penetrate the inner sanctum of French military power.

Michelle de Bonneuil (1748-1829), rendered here in pastel by Rosalie Filleul, ca. 1778, was celebrated for her beauty, charm, and artistic ability–and acted as a spy for the French Revolutionary government and Napoleon (unknown provenance, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

If you’re thinking that Hold Fast sounds like Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels of the Napoleonic era meeting Ian Fleming’s James Bond, you’ve nailed it, and the author intends as much. In his afterword, Gelernter confirms himself an admirer of both. For reasons I’ll get to a little later, I wish he’d hewn more to O’Brian than Fleming, but as a fast-paced adventure story, Hold Fast has its charms.

First and foremost, the narrative moves like lightning, with “no—and furthermore” lurking in every nook and cranny, to say nothing of dark alleys and rooms in which two’s company and three’s a crowd—especially when the uninvited third holds a weapon. Secondly, Gelernter has a lot of fun turning Grey into a nineteenth-century Bond, equally at home at a gaming table, vineyard tasting room, or hand-to-hand combat. The in-joke will raise a chuckle, here and there; Hold Fast can be pleasingly clever, that way.

The narrative also shows a grasp of physical detail, lightly handled:

It was only the sound of seamen holystoning the Ruby’s deck that pulled him back to the present, reminded him where he was—it was that scrape-scrape, scrape-scrape of men on their knees scouring the ship with sandstone chunks the size and shape of Bibles. Grey couldn’t help but notice that the pace of the scraping was considerably slower than it was, invariably, in the navy. On this ship there was no bosun to start the men with a kick in the pants. Nevertheless, the ship was impeccably clean. Perhaps there was a lesson in that.

As this passage implies, Grey, though a naval intelligence man through and through, rejects the brutal Royal Navy discipline, so a wisp of democrat exists beneath the surface of a warrior for king and country. It’s a wrinkle, unfortunately one of few, and the others don’t appeal me—he’s a prig, vengeful, cold, with a moral code stereotypical of the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Which raises the question: Is this meant to be funny?

There’s a scene in which a young woman points a pistol at him. Since she’s neglected to cock it (it’s a flintlock, naturally), Grey has no trouble subduing her. He cracks her on the side of the head—gently, mind you—deftly grasps her body before it falls, and deposits her in a chair. Should we laugh?

Such humor, if that’s what it is, sits oddly, though, and not just because a lot of bodies fall. Lacking the tongue-in-cheek bravura of the George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, Hold Fast conversely fails to treat the serious subject matter with depth or empathy. Grey’s flatness, though it may provoke a smile, as in the above scene, renders him an automaton, and priggishness never did much for anyone, especially without a sidekick with whom to contrast. As a shallow, even dislikable character, then, Grey offers little to bond with, if you will. This is where the narrative misses anything remotely akin to the O’Brian gift for character and relationships.

I read Hold Fast mildly curious to know how Grey would foil the threats against him. But if I’d stopped reading halfway through, I wouldn’t have felt cheated, because I didn’t find him compelling. Moreover, you can guess how he’ll proceed, relying on his preternatural aptitude for close-quarters combat, which no one else ever seems to match.

Consequently, the character in the novel lacks depth, and the character of the novel comes down mostly to cleverness. That has its points occasionally; my favorite bits concern intriguing sidelights on gambling or the making of champagne. But if these are the most interesting aspects of Hold Fast, I can’t say I’m held.

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