The Shores of Tripoli by James L. Haley
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016. Hardcover, 464 pages.
Happy Halloween, and trick or treat, readers! The trick you can already see from the title of this post, right where it says “guest” review. The treat, of course, is the novel which we’ll talk about a couple paragraphs further down.
My name is Scott, and longtime followers of Amy’s Scrap Bag will probably surmise (correctly) from some of her previous non-review posts that I am Amy’s fiancé. Amy recently received an advance proof of this novel, The Shores of Tripoli, at a conference. While she also intends to read it herself, the subject matter fell more within my particular array of favorites, so I ended up taking it first. The following, I hope, will communicate to you my own impressions of Mr. Haley’s work and how it measures up to similar entries in the genre.
There are a number of well-known historical novels and series following the British Royal Navy during the early nineteenth century, such as C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series and the Aubrey-Maturin novels penned by Patrick O’Brian. Haley, however, moves the spotlight onto the fledgling United States Navy during the First Barbary War. Among the celebrated historical figures of that time, Haley deftly inserts Bliven Putnam, midshipman aboard USS Enterprise. As the novel’s subtitle “Lieutenant Putnam and the Barbary Pirates” may suggest, our hero does not remain a midshipman long, quickly thrust into action and acquitting himself with valor. The newly-promoted lieutenant finds himself furloughed ashore for a year and a half, helping to tend his parents’ farm and finding romance with neighbor Clarity Marsh. Putnam returns to duty aboard “Old Ironsides” herself, USS Constitution, bound for the Barbary shores once again under the command of Commodore Edward Preble. Bliven serves as Commodore Preble’s aide throughout the attempts to negotiate peace and protection for American merchant vessels, which grants the lieutenant a window into the duplicity and intrigue of international politics. When diplomacy fails, Putnam is detailed to follow General William Eaton across the sands of Libya and into the novel’s climax, the Battle of Derne.
Given that Haley is doing his best to follow historical events as they happened, there aren’t a lot of surprises to encounter in the main plotline. That’s not a deal-breaker, though; after all, Nintendo’s Mario games rarely have a story more complex than “the princess has been kidnapped, go save her,” and yet they still sell millions of copies because of the quality of the gameplay involved in the saving. What it does mean is that our author has be careful to milk every last drop of detail and feeling from each moment of those events, which he certainly has done. Haley is able to craft his scenes well and convey just the right emotion at the right time. The reader can feel Putnam’s frustration at being laid up on shore for so long, the sudden onset and subsequent release of tension when the Constitution encounters HMS Maidstone in the fog, and Preble’s determination to see the mission accomplished despite the obstacles laid before the American fleet. The last few dozen pages leave a sizable number of sequel hooks to pick up in the next volume (this novel being billed as first in a series). There are a few too many unraveled threads here for my liking, but this is somewhat forgivable since Haley appears to be setting up for an extended tour of duty in these waters.
As far as Haley’s style goes, his prose flows well and is easy to follow. Nautical terms and maneuvers are either sufficiently explained at the right moment or can be looked up in the glossary included at the back. This is a pleasant change from the Aubrey-Maturin novels; while I enjoy O’Brian’s work very much, he still fell short in his descriptive efforts, confusing some readers and turning away others. In fact, for those interested in other naval fiction, I might suggest reading this book first and using the information within as a primer for the series of your choice. Haley’s chapters are well-focused and of a reasonable length, with breaking points liberally sprinkled throughout. The longest chapter comes in at about 45 pages, but it is a clear outlier, as the rest are all no more than around 30. If you are looking for a stopping point (and I hope you aren’t, I certainly wasn’t), one is never far away from where you are at any given time.
The one area I feel that Haley should improve a bit is in the line of the cast of characters. Let me say first that this is not meant to take anything away from what he has already done with Putnam, Preble, Eaton, and the others which are primarily featured. I do, however, feel that there should be more characters active in the story. O’Brian sets this bar high in the Aubrey-Maturin series, with a host of strong secondary voices such as Pullings, Babbington, Bonden, and Killick helping both to push the action and provide diversion as needed over the twenty-volume series. Haley, on the other hand, shows a lot of Putnam, Preble, Eaton, and to a lesser degree Clarity Marsh and Putnam’s fellow lieutenant Sam Bandy, but very little in the way of nonessential support. There were several places where characters were simply crying out for more development, either being mentioned and never seen or alluded to multiple times but only actually seen for one or two short passages. There are some small exceptions, such as the Constitution‘s surgeon Edward Cutbush and midshipman Joseph Israel, but I would like to see the spotlight be shared more equally in future works.
In summary, The Shores of Tripoli is not quite up to the level of what I would consider an instant classic, but it is a worthy first entry into a series which I hope has a long and healthy life ahead of it. As I’ve mentioned, the novel is not without its flaws, but the story is both faithful to history and satisfying to the reader. It hits store shelves tomorrow, and I certainly would recommend that you find the nearest copy as soon as you can. Haley has acquitted himself well with this work, and I’m looking forward to the arrival of the promised continuation.