The Bloody Black Flag is both a murder mystery as well as rousing pirate adventure. I’ll look at the historical adventure aspect of the novel here. The mystery component I review at Gumshoes, Gats, and Gams.
The story opens in October 1722. Spider John and his friend Ezra, fleeing from the British Navy, have given up their attempt to establish honest lives on shore and are returning to a life of piracy, or going back on the account as they would say. They sign up with Plymouth Dream, a pirate ship captained by the despotic Captain Barlow. Unlike most ships, where the crew votes on all decisions except during combat, when the captain has absolute authority, Barlow rules with an iron hand at all times.
Barlow is sailing for Jamaica, which suits Spider and Ezra just fine. Trouble comes during the first night, when one of the crew murders Ezra. Spider John swears to find the murderer and kill him, but he has more immediate problems, such as staying alive himself. Before his death, Ezra was recognized by one of the crew and accused of having witchblood because of his family history. The same accusation could be made against Spider, so he has to keep a low profile while he pursues his investigation, pirates being a superstitious lot. Fortunately, his role as the ship’s carpenter gives him a reason to move about and talk to the other pirates.
It doesn’t take Spider long to figure out that Plymouth Dream is not your typical pirate ship, and not just because of the way things are run. Barlow, the first mate Addison, and the second mate are hiding secrets. They have a small item they intend to sell in Jamaica to an agent of the French crown. When the item goes missing, Spider finds he’s shipped out on the pirate ship from Hell.
These are not the romanticized pirates of Johnny Depp movies, nor do they bear much resemblance to Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. Some, like Spider and Ezra, are good men who have gone on the accountant as a matter of survival. When your ship is taken and your choices are join the pirates or die, many men will choose to live, like Spider did. But most, especially Barlow and Addison are anything but heroic or good. They’re profane, vile, and murderous. Spider has a wife and son he hasn’t seen in years he hopes to go home to. He won’t make it this voyage. He’s too busy staying alive and trying to find Ezra’s killer.
Mixing a pirate yarn with a murder mystery is something of a trick, and Goble pulls it off. The two genres blend well in this book. The combat scenes and descriptions of life on the account are well done. We smell the gunsmoke and blood, hear the cannons and screams of the injured and dying, feel the splinters flying and the cut of the blades. We also experience the bad food, watered rum, and feel the salt breeze.
The tension rises as the book progresses. Goble introduces us to enough characters to flesh out the cast but never overwhelms the reader with too many people to keep track of. The men have their own reasons for being on the ship. We don’t learn all their backstories, but Goble gives us enough to make them real.
Spider John is a fascinating character. He’s basically a good man who, through circumstances, has crossed over the line into the world of piracy. He tries not to kill, but he doesn’t hesitate to do so when the situation demands it of him. He’s fast and strong, but he’s no Conan. Spider is below average height, and so he must survive on his wits as much as his physical strength.
I preorderd this book, and I’m glad I did. The Bloody Black Flag was great fun. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next installment in this series. If you like pirates, mysteries, or both you’ll want to pick this one up.