A Landlubber’s View of Patrick O’Brian

Finding a book you really like is great, but finding a whole series is even better. Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret — these characters all feel like old friends, and it’s always a pleasure to crack a new volume, or reread an old one after ten or fifteen years.

Master and Commander by Patrick O'BrianPatrick O’Brian’s historical novels about the British Navy were recommended to me years ago by my Uncle Fruity; his real name was Reuel, his friends called him Kim, but to us, he was Uncle Fruity. I knew they would be good reads because Uncle Fruity knew a good read when he found one. He turned me on to Barbara Tuchman, starting with The Zimmerman Telegram.

And there are about 20 of the O’Brian books, which might even be enough to last through this whole pandemic.

The series became famous in 2003 when the movie Master and Commander came out. It’s a great movie that really shows what it’s like to fight a battle with cannnons on an open sea, in case you were thinking of trying it.

A lot of people loved the movie, but it didn’t do too well at the box office and it probably cost a lot to make because they had to blow a lot of boats to Kingdom Come, so they never made any more of them.

The series is about Captain Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe in the movie) and his friend, the ship’s surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin (played by Paul Bettany) a naturalist who also works for one branch of Britain’s spy network while also being active in independence movements in Catalonia and Ireland. The guy has a lot of irons in the fire.

Aubrey and Maturin sail the seven seas, fighting the French (Napoleonic Wars) and later the Americans (War of 1812) and having all kinds of adventures, interspersed with long languid periods of calm in the doldrums when they break out the violin and violincello and fiddle out a duet.

Dr. Maturin is always collecting exotic specimens and even live critters and bringing them home to show his fellow naturalists, that is, if the ship don’t catch on fire or get blown to Kingdom Come. Captain Jack is always on the verge of getting rich from prize money for capturing enemy ships or privateers, but that never happens and he has to travel around in a hearse to avoid his creditors.

One time they get captured by the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) and they’re held as prisoners in Boston, where they’re almost assassinated by unscrupulous French agents.

In all these books, O’Brian throws a lot of naval terminology at you which you’re probably not going to understand, but you get the drift. I was wondering why I was snjoying reading these books when I don’t know what he’s talking about half the time, and it’s because he’s clever about giving you just enough information to get the gist without ever understanding completely.

After a while I could see why Jack was maneuvering to get the weather gauge on the other guy so he could sail up and give him a broadside and then come about and give him another.

I started with a book fairly late in the series which I picked up at the nursing home I was in. Then I read a couple of random volumes. Now I’m actually starting with the first one and I’m going to go through more or less in order until I get to the end or until they find a vaccine.