I’ve never been a big fan of naval historical fiction. I’ve read some of the Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester and the occasional stand-alone. I’ve even written some fairly extensive naval sequences in various historical novels, but it took a lot of research because I’m not a sailor. I am a paperback junkie, however, so when I was in Half Price Books recently and saw that they had all eleven books in the Fox series, published by Pinnacle in the mid-Seventies, for a very reasonable price . . . Well, you know what I did. I bought them. I used to own this series but never got around to reading any of the books.
Now I’ve read the first one, THE PRESS GANG, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. George Abercrombie Fox is not your typical clean-cut naval adventure hero. A product of London’s slums, he started out as a powder monkey when he was just a boy and has risen in the ranks until he’s the second lieutenant on the British frigate Tigress in 1800, fighting the French. Fox is a morally conflicted anti-hero, capable of brutality and violence but still possessing a certain amount of sympathy for the men who serve below-decks in the British navy. He also has an odd physical quirk: in moments of high stress, he goes blind in one eye.
The plot of this novel meanders along. The Tigress gets in battles with French ships, and then lands an English spy on the coast of France in the dark of night, and then Fox has to help put down a mutiny . . . but then part of the way through, the story takes a twist I hadn’t expected and the pace picks up. The action scenes are well-done, although some of them include so much sailing jargon that they’re almost gibberish to me. There’s plenty of cutlass-swinging and decks awash with blood when the action takes place in closer quarters, though. The main appeal is the character of George Abercrombie Fox, who somehow comes across as likable despite his often unsympathetic actions. He’s hell on wheels in a fight, that’s for sure.
The author, Adam Hardy, was really veteran British paperbacker Kenneth Bulmer, who is best known for his numerous science fiction novels dating back to the early Fifties. He wrote many historical novels as well, under various pseudonyms. His career was roughly contemporary with those of the Piccadilly Cowboys, a group of British authors who wrote scores of Western novels during the Sixties and Seventies, and Bulmer, in fact, wrote one Western, an entry in the Jubal Cade series under the house-name Charles R. Pike. Fox reminds me very much of the anti-heroes so common in the British Westerns, the same sort of variation on the typical naval adventure hero that, say, Edge was on the traditional Western hero. I wouldn’t say that THE PRESS GANG is for everybody, but I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I have the rest of the books in the series. I may even read them. (One historical note: the Fox series was published originally by New English Library, and there are fourteen volumes as published by NEL. Pinnacle Books published only eleven of them in the U.S. As to whether I’ll seek out the books published only in England . . . well, I’ll have to wait until I’ve read the others and see how well I like them, I guess.)