Just Finished Reading: Send a Gunboat by Douglas Reeman (FP: 1960)
Hong Kong, China. The Mid/late 1950’s. Naval Commander Justin Rolfe arrives under a cloud of suspicion after crashing his previous command at high speed into the docks at Malta. Barely surviving the resultant court-martial he is assigned to command Her Majesties China Gunboat Wagtail in the final few months before the obsolete craft is decommissioned. But almost as soon as he arrives on board he is surprised to receive an urgent and secret order to provision and sail immediately. Their destination is the small island of Santu which is threatened by invasion by the Communist Chinese. On the island is a small contingent of British businessmen and a doctor with decided Left-Wing leanings. The island is run with military brutality by a Nationalist Chinese General who, when not playing chess or planning acts of piracy against his Communist enemies enjoys nothing more than counting his money. With a crew initially deeply suspicious of their new Captain they must sail into potentially dangerous waters with a vessel designed at the turn of the century potentially facing the crème of the Communist Chinese destroyer force. Even Commander Rolf is unsure how he will react if the shooting starts and people start dying.
I picked this up a little while back when I thought I’d like to read more seafaring tales. Reeman wrote LOTS of books in the 60’s and 70’s and continued writing until 2007 just 10 years before his death. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but the ‘feel’ of the book was something approaching the original Ian Fleming Bond novels complete with heavy drinking protagonists, a bi-polar world made up of Democrats and Communists along with a flavour of dying Empire. The whole thing definitely had a slightly seedy, sleazy 1950’s feel to it which was fun. What I found less fun was the often poor (sometimes bordering on the terrible) dialogue throughout the short 256 page book. Despite this obvious weakness I did find it a quick and easy read containing a bunch of generally stereotypical (if entertaining) characters. What raised it above the bland and barely engaging was the final meeting between Wagtail and an anonymous Chinese destroyer. The running battle over around 20 pages was gripping and seemed to me to be a believably realistic representation of what might be expected of such an encounter. It was definitely the highlight of the book. I’ve already picked up a few more of the authors many, many sea related novels and you’ll be hearing more from him at some point. With luck ‘Gunboat’ might be a poorer example of his work than the rest. I hope so. Reasonable, if dated, thrills in shallow Chinese waters.