- by Carol Standish
The Continental Risque (Pocket Books; 358pp; $14.00) is the third in a series called Revolution at Sea by Maine native, James L. Nelson. At least five maritime historical novels about the American Revolution are planned. Based on letters, journals, logs and official reports, The Continental Risque recreates the first combined United States Navy and Marine Corps action in the history of those services. Author Nelson spins an exciting yarn, made thoroughly plausible by his own experience. As a youth, he ran away to sea, joining the crew of the Golden Hinde, a replica of Sir Francis Drake's 1577 ship. Life as a traditional and tall ship sailor agreed with Nelson and he eventually served on the "H.M.S." Rose, a replica of a Revolutionary War British frigate.
The phrase "Continental Risque" derives from a speech by John Hancock in 1775 in which he states, "The ships and vessels of War are to be on the Continental risque & pay." The fledgling American Navy, made up of converted merchantmen, is up against the biggest most efficient warships ever built. The officers and men are green when it comes to military procedure—and fighting in general (except among themselves.)
Captain Isaac Biddlecomb, with a few skirmishes under his belt, (recounted in the first two novels of the series, By Force of Arms and The Maddest Idea) joins the patched together American fleet which is sailing to the Bahamas to raid British military stores. On board his converted merchantman, Charlemagne, are a mixture of salty rapscallions, a Southern gentleman newly appointed first lieutenant, and a malcontent who is drawn in the grand tradition of a darkly mad sea dog. Biddlecomb has his hands full before he sets sail…and then the fleet freezes up solid in Delaware Bay.
When the fleet finally reaches the Bahamas, Naussavian political intrigue, already in progress, causes havoc and confusion. Although the rebels are victorious in capturing the island, the mission ultimately fails. On the way home, the fleet's honor and morale sagging, Biddlecomb spots a "strange sail." She flies the "Pine Tree Flag, the Appeal to Heaven," the same as Charlemagne's old ensign, but the ship flies false colors. A ripsnorter of a sea battle ensues and Charlemagne is victorious.
Many other seagoing perils threaten the fleet, however, as it wends its way north in light air. Between the fleet and home stands the Glasgow a state of the art British warship, which out guns, out mans and out sails even the flagship of the American fleet. While the Glasgow attacks, Biddlecomb is putting down a mutiny on the Charlemagne.
While Nelson has been compared to O'Brian, his novels contain neither O'Brian's erudition nor characterization. Nelson's research is sufficiently thorough, however, that the reader is treated to a particularly picturesque period of American naval history. Action on this side of the Atlantic is gives the series a compelling edge even if you're not an American history buff. The Continental Risque is lighter than any of O'Brian's novels, both relaxing and engaging, being action packed. Nelson's novels are a fun rainy day read whether hunkering down in the cabin of your cruiser or in your land-locked den.