Monday, November 15, 2010

Black Bartlemy's Treasure by Jeffrey Farnol

And now for the kind of review this blog was started for! There are many fun vintage bestsellers in existence and it would be hard to find something more typical than this: desperately obscure, slightly trashy, incredibly rare, and good fun from beginning to end. While reading Black Bartlemy's Treasure will not add points to your IQ, aid you in an understanding of great English literature, or enable you to brag to your liberal arts class, it will give you a few hours of good clean fun when you are too brain-dead to read anything else.
From the very first sentence of this book, I knew I was going to keenly enjoy it:
The Frenchman beside me had been dead since dawn. His scarred and shackled body swayed limply back and forth with every sweep of the great oar as we, his less fortunate bench-fellows, tugged and strained to keep time to the stroke.

That's right—our hero, Martin Conisby, has been betrayed and sold into galley-slavery by his ancient enemy. The Conisbys and the Brandons had been feuding for years when wicked Sir Richard Brandon succeeded in having Conisby elder thrown in jail for alleged treason, where he died, and getting rid of Martin to a galley. Kept alive by his mad thirst for revenge, Martin finally comes home after five years to wreak his vengeance. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) Unluckily for Martin, Sir Richard has disappeared to the West Indies, leaving behind only his massive fortune and his good and beautiful daughter, Lady Joan Brandon. She was Martin's childhood playmate, and to his great annoyance seems determined to remain friends with him even though he is now determined to hate her for her father's sake. Although she warns him repeatedly of the dangers of an obsession for revenge, he disregards her, continuing to chew up all the scenery in that part of England.
Meanwhile, there are strange doings afoot. A dagger shaped like a silver woman turns up, and men of low moral fibre all up and down the coast lower their voices and whisper when they speak of it, for it is the dagger of the famous and wicked pirate Black Bartlemy, whose fabulous treasure is still buried somewhere in the Caribbean. Martin and some of these men of low moral fibre plan to hijack a ship belonging to Lady Joan in order to go off looking for this treasure—and then, by good hap, Sir Richard. This plan is scuppered when Joan announces her intention to sail on the ship herself to look for her father.
Naturally, Martin and Joan get marooned together on a lonely island paradise, where their personalities start to shape each other in strange ways...
While there's a fair lot of swashbuckling, piracy, treasure-hunting, scheming, and Robinson-Crusoe-ing to be had in this book, when you consider that most of it tells about two people of the opposite sex marooned on a desert island with precious little to do but twiddle their thumbs, argue, and fall in love (oops, did I give it away?) it should come as no surprise to find that this is mostly a romance. It's a particularly fluffy and melodramatic romance, too. That comment about scenery-chewing was quite serious—Martin chews up most of England and half the Caribbean throughout the book. You have never come in contact with such dangerously high levels of melodrama. At times it can be comical, at other times tiresome, and the thing is I'm not so sure Jeffrey Farnol isn't having a laugh himself.
In other ways, there are things that I really appreciate about this book. As I said, it mostly concerns two people of the opposite sex marooned on a desert island. It is pretty realistic human psychology that a couple in that circumstance would fall in love (something Farnol plays for all its worth—argh, argh, mustn't fall in love with the enemy's offspring). There's also the powerful physical attraction that both of them have to battle against. Naturally, like everything else in the book, this is played for maximum drama, but I must say it's nice to see a writer actually tackling the question with both morals and honesty. All too rare these days.
Finally, I appreciate the way the revenge themes are handled. Martin's obviously hell-bent on ruining what's left of his life in his insensate quest for revenge, and as a consequence often behaves like a two-year-old. Revenge and the desire for revenge are constantly portrayed as immature, shameful, and just plain wrong. It's very refreshing—most writers can't help just having a little bit of fun with their revenge plots, even if it all turns out to be hollow in the end (I'm looking at you, Count of Monte Cristo and Ben-Hur).
You won't find out how it all wraps up in this book, though. The second half of the story can be found in Martin Conisby's Vengeance, the sequel, which I look forward to reviewing shortly.


Gerald said...

I'm surprised you find it "slightly trashy"although seeing frrom whence you come, and the fact that it is a period piece very well written, perhaps i should not be. I found no difficulty in ever finding -and buying- Farnol books, many of which I have including both of those you mention. I read them all in the 1940s, and have a large library, (+- 7000) of what you wouldterm "obscure" and very hard to find books. I see that I have many worth hundreds of dollars according to the Internet sites. However, When one knows the period and attunes to it, even a very latecomer and reader of vulgar, obscene trash like yourself, might bet to appreciate it a bit more.

Suzannah said...

Gerald, I'm sorry you were offended by the flippant tone of my review! You clearly enjoyed this Farnol book and thought a lot of it; and while I don't consider it (or the other Farnol books I've read) great fiction, perhaps I gave the wrong impression. I actually really enjoyed this book and rather revelled in it. I also read a lot of fiction from the early 1900s (from John Buchan and Anthony Hope to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Johnstone McCulley, and Stanley J Weyman) so I'd have thought myself pretty well-attuned to the period; and I'm slightly at a loss to think what "vulgar, obscene trash" you might be referring to. (Forever Amber would certainly qualify, but I didn't exactly give that a five-star review).


The Yuletide Kid said...

I was pleased to see that your review of Jeffery Farnol's Black Bartlemy's Treasure was more mature and crisp than the one for The Broad Highway.

Unfortunately, judging from Gerald's comment, you appear to be out of your depth in evaluating Farnol's work. I don't mean that as a criticism in any way. Farnol is a more complex and complicated writer than most readers realize.

I can say this with some authority since I have been reading Farnol off and on for more than fifty years. Farnol was first introduced to me as a teenager by my father. "Son," he said to me one day, "if you really want a rip-roaring read from an author with a whacky but addictive style, give Jeffery Farnol a try. I don't know which are better: his bodice-ripping Regency romances or his swashbuckling tales of the Spanish Main."

Needless to say, my father had a way pricking my curiosity.

Oh, by the way, in the early 1940s Farnol wrote a prequel to Black Bartlemy's Treasure and Martin Conisby's Vengeance called Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer. You might want to read that one too since it is a wonderfully crafted work abounding with characters that both charm and repel.

Lastly, I would also suggest that you try Winds of Fortune (Winds of Chance: American title) since this too is one helluva ride, only this time told exclusively through the eyes of the woman protagonist, the beauteous Ursula Revell.

As ever,
The Yuletide Kid


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