How not to write an action-adventure hero, or what you can learn from “Captain Nemesis”

With a pirate’s gleam in my eye, I snatched up a copy of “Captain Nemesis” from a used-bookstore shelf. Here was a paperback pirate adventure from 1957 by an author whose name I had never heard. Having exhausted all the Rafael Sabatini and Robert Louis Stevenson pirate yarns, plus others by lesser lights, I am always on the lookout for more.

Bookstore Booty

I added F. van Wyck Mason’s “Captain Nemesis” to my to-be-read pile, at the top. The cover blurb promised “the swashbuckling story of a cashiered naval officer who turned pirate.” On the back, the text told me “here is a whiplash story of adventure on the rolling seas — of mutineers, slave ships, piracy and deadly combat.”

It all sounded pretty good to me. I am trying to sell one swashbuckling novel myself, “The Bloody Black Flag,” while writing a sequel. I am a sucker for swords, flintlocks, high seas battles and all that. 

At first, I was very pleased with my chance discovery in that book store. Mason starts by unfolding a plot that could be the love child of Sabatini and Alexandre Dumas. The action is less subtly handled, the sexual details are more lurid (although still chaste by modern standards), but the roots of swashbuckling tradition are there. The prose is par for the course in that era, but mostly smooth and Mason can turn a phrase now and then. The dialogue gets a bit “argh matey” at times, but what the hell. I’m reading this for fun, not to be drenched in some sort of existential angst.

It was fun, too, with some early action worthy of a good sword-and-sorcery tale. As our hero, a junior officer in His Majesty’s Navy held back by his colonial American upbringing, found his troubles growing and secret enemies closing in on him, I was rooting for him.

This is where it fell apart, though, and Lieutenant Nathaniel Andrews turned out to be no swashbuckler after all.

The problem? Poor Nat never really  is shown as an agent of change. He doesn’t make things happen; things happen around him. He doesn’t create opportunities; they magically present themselves just when they are needed. Other characters, and the hand of fate, move the plot along, while Nat soaks up the adoration and loyalty of his makeshift crew for reasons that I could never see.

During the course of the novel, Nat does change, of course. The young upstanding fellow we meet in Chapter One is the king of the Seven Seas by the end of the book. The problem is, the reader never learns how that transformation occurs. The book skips ahead in time a year, and Nat and his ragtag band of convicts — with no real plan other than a desire for revenge and some vague talk from Nat about how “true discipline” will make them all the scourge of the oceans — are suddenly presented as exactly that, scourge of the oceans, with no real hint of the battles and wit and cunning that had to have taken place to get there.

Nat is not really a very colorful pirate, either. He runs his vessels pretty much as the Royal Navy ran its vessels, with regular standing watches and uniforms designed by one of his crew mates, for crying out loud. There is not much of a “Treasure Island” vibe.

The biggest problem with this book, though, is the fact that Nat doesn’t buckle swashes. Coincidences abolish obstacles for him. He doesn’t figure out the plot that led to his pirate life; it is all explained to him when coincidence puts one of the co-conspirators in his hands. He doesn’t even really pursue his enemies, he just kind of moves around and coincidence brings his enemies to him. Hell, he doesn’t even confront the guy who ruined his Naval career and set him up for life in a penal colony.

 None of it is very heroic, and none of it is very piratical. Even when Nat shows a glimpse of swashbuckling determination, deciding that desperation is forcing him into a pirate career, the author makes sure that the targets of Nat’s crew are always lower on the moral scale than they are, thus allowing them to not really be pirates. Not really.

I have another Mason book, plucked from the same shelf as “Captain Nemesis,” and I will give it a try. Mason was prolific, and this book showed he can handle some aspects of the swashbuckler. If he gives me a hero who does things instead of watching fate and other people do things for him, I will seek out more. If he gives me another festival of amazingly hard to believe coincidences turning a boring guy into a nautical legend, I’ll pass.

Action story protagonists have to Do Deeds, damn it, not watch miracles.

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