Over the course of five novels, Robert Hough has shown a liking for the nooks and crannies of his preferred genre, historical fiction, as well as for characters at the far ends of the fortune spectrum: his wild cat tamers, stowaways, charlatans and conmen tend to be either down on their luck or flush with success. If you’re looking for tales of simmering middle-class disenchantment, in other words, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
And though Hough has flirted with the picaresque he’s never embraced it as thoroughly as he does in his new novel. Its dustjacket compares The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan to Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, but Hough isn’t a deadpan stylist like DeWitt—the tone and cadence of this book reminded me more of Richard Wright’s exuberant first novel, Farthing’s Fortunes.
Lashing the fate of one character directly to that of another is another of Hough’s narrative habits. The Romanian stowaway in The Stowaway depends for his survival on the goodwill of the Filipino bosun who discovers him. The orphan-turned-tiger-tamer heroine of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark rises to fame via an unusually intimate relationship with a Bengal tiger named Rajah. Violeta, in Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, leaves her boyfriend to hitch her wagon to the snake oil-selling mountebank Romulus Brinkley after he promises to make her a radio star.
The relationship between The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan’s hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold hero, Benny Wand, and the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan is more co-dependent than the novel’s title suggests. Initially, it’s Morgan who “saves” the lowborn, illiterate Benny after the latter winds up deported to the louche city of Port Royal, Jamaica in 1664 following a conviction for illegal gaming. A chess savant, Benny’s con is to disguise his skill until his target, buoyed by an engineered winning streak, decides to double down.
In Port Royal, Benny takes his place among a gang of roughnecks roasting tortoises on the beach while awaiting the arrival of the infamous buccaneer. Crewing for Morgan—who, word has it, has been commissioned by the English government to put an end to Spain’s stranglehold on the Caribbean—is the men’s, and therefore Benny’s, only prospect for gainful employment. And I do mean “gainful”: after the successful taking of Villahermosa, Port Royal’s shuttered whorehouses and taverns suddenly spark to life, eager to share in the crew’s abundant spoils.
The Villahermosa victory, however, hadn’t come easily. So when word reaches Morgan that Benny had predicted the narrowly avoided Spanish ambush his advisers hadn’t, he demands to meet with him. Hough’s Morgan is a loner and a misfit, a believer in meritocracy forced, by dint of his profession, to hobnob with the aristocracy, so when his putative scrub boy also proceeds to trounce him at his favourite game—chess—Morgan’s interest in him is piqued even more.
The next time Morgan finds himself in a strategic tight spot, during a raid in Portobello, it’s to Benny he turns for advice. The latter’s extempore tactic proves, much to his horror, murderously effective. Benny isn’t averse to relieving a man of his savings but, unlike Morgan, he finds he can’t stomach physical violence.
Needless to say, Morgan is thrilled and promotes Benny to military advisor. He also takes to summoning him, between raids, to his lavish estate to play chess games that Benny invariably wins.
Benny is a rich man when Morgan—only yesterday the toast of the fledgling empire—is peremptorily sent off to prison, England having decided to make an ally of its erstwhile enemy, Spain. Later, he is quietly installed as Jamaica’s governor. But, deprived of the profession he truly loves, he ends up hitting the bottle, hard. (Given that Morgan is presumed to have died of cirrhosis, naming a brand of rum after him seems counterintuitive, but hey, why dwell on the bad stuff?) The next time Benny is called to visit Morgan he finds him—like a seventeenth-century Jake LaMotta or Charles Foster Kane—bloated, surly and rambling in his decrepit mansion, his only company a harem of native girls.
There’s a certain clichéd hokeyness to using chess as the ultimate gauge of intelligence. Still, it’s hard to resist Hough’s cheeky Seventh Seal homage in Benny and Morgan’s final match when their relationship has—for reasons you should discover on your own—degenerated into antagonism. “You lose,” a recently knighted Morgan threatens, “and there’ll be consequences.”
A gifted, natural storyteller, Hough is at his best when he keeps things simple and straightforward, like he does here (2007’s The Culprits was undermined by a gimmicky narrator). The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan is Hough’s most amiable book, its prose moving along like a perfectly rigged sloop-of-war. Like all the author’s novels, it’s also a morality tale, but the morals aren’t weighty or ponderous, they’re simply part of the entertainment.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor