It has been a while since I finished a book that wasn’t for work in some way, whether something my students were reading or a book was reviewing. I’ve started a lot of books, but I haven’t finished one lately. Until, that is, I finished The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood by Robert Hutchinson, which a friend lent me.
And it’s … OK. The problem is fundamentally that the subject is a lot more interesting than the actual book. Thomas Blood was one of those scoundrelly adventurer types who emerge in times of political instability — in this case, the post-Civil War and Restoration period. He was a military veteran associated with various mostly failed anti-Stuart risings, kidnappings and robberies, most notably the attempted theft of the Crown Jewels in 1671. He’s right in that very interesting overlap between organised crime, terrorism and intelligence.
But the book is … well, let’s just say it’s not very well written. Let me give you a sample sentence:
With the prospect of war with the Dutch looming ever nearer on the horizon, accompanied by the unacceptable risk of concurrent sedition and insurrection being fomented amongst religious dissidents, it was imperative not only to deactivate the known renegades but also to quieten nonconformist resentment and anger at the congregations’ treatment at the hands of the government.
Which is Hutchinson’s way of saying:
As war with the Dutch approached, Arlington decided to counter the threat of nonconformist sedition not only by moving against known troublemakers but also by addressing some of the congregations’ grievances.
It’s like he thinks every sentence in the book is going to be the only one you read. Or, like, this kind of thing:
Matthew Pretty, who drew pints of ale from the tavern’s barrels …
“Who drew pints of ale from the tavern’s barrels.” Or, in English, “the barman.” And ale doesn’t have anything to do with anything, because Pretty’s actual testimony, reproduced in the next paragraph, describes a group of men coming into the tavern and ordering … wine. It’s just words for the sake of words, and it makes an interesting story hard to read.
And so much of it is just stock phrases. Consider:
Ormond busied himself dispatching instructions the length and breadth of Ireland to destroy the conspiracy, root and branch.
Or, if you prefer:
Ormond sent out instructions to destroy the conspiracy.
Anyway, it’s still an engaging story, but Hutchinson’s prose style makes it much harder to read than its roguish main character and exciting incidents would suggest.