Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: The Frozen Pirate, by W. Clark Russell (1887)

This is one of the better books I read during Manly Months here at The Literary Rambler.  It's the story of adventure on the seas, of treasure and survival.  It starts out with some of the boldest action language I've ever seen.
The storm made a loud thunder in the sky, and this tremendous utterance dominated without subduing the many screaming, hissing, shrieking, and hooting noises raised in the rigging and about the decks, and the wild, seething, weltering sound of the sea, maddened by the gale and struggling in its enormous passion under the first choking and iron grip of the hurricane's hand.
That's what W. Clark Russell was known for, and that's why people read him.  I first heard about him from the Sherlock Holmes story, The Five Orange Pips, which had Watson reading a Russell book.
Sherlock Holmes sat moodily at one side of the fireplace cross-indexing his records of crime, while I at the other was deep in one of Clark Russell's fine sea-stories until the howl of the gale from without seemed to blend with the text, and the splash of the rain to lengthen out into the long swash of the sea waves.
You can almost imagine Watson reading the very same example I gave above.  It fits with his description of the howl of the gale and the splash of the rain.  In fact, The Frozen Pirate was published in 1887, and while The Five Orange Pips was published four years later, in 1891, it was supposed to take place guessed it...1887.  So I think we have a winner.  I believe this is the very book A. Conan Doyle meant for Dr. Watson to be reading on that dark and stormy night.

With a recommendation like that it's hard not to want to find and read one of Russell's books, preferably this particular book.  So I did.  The Frozen Pirate starts out with plenty of action, plenty of wild stuff going on, and a good touch of the macabre.

In a nutshell, a seaman is lost at sea in a small boat when his ship sinks in a storm in bitter cold waters.  He comes across an island of ice, finds an old ship stuck in the ice, and then the fun begins.  I'm not going to give away the good stuff.  I started to think about the unlikelihood of some of the events that occurred such as how cold it would have to be for certain things to happen, and if it's really that cold how could he survive the night away from the fire?  But then you realize it's just that kind of book.  Don't worry about it, just enjoy it.

It was a fine introduction to Russell and I intend to read more of him.  But I won't say the book is perfect.  I would recommend it, but understand that it can get a bit long in the tooth.  It is first person narration and for most of the book the main character is alone, describing in mundane detail all the boring things he does.  Sailor jargon is plentiful and can bog you down.  Towards the end you wonder if Russell is going to continue with minute descriptions all the way to the very last bit.  Then he says something along the lines of "I won't bore the readers with all the details of how we did this or that," and then proceeds to bore us with details.  The book should have been over long before it was.  There was no climax, nothing worth the trouble he went to.  Plus, the epilogue sort of ruined things.  When you're writing fiction, you are in complete control of what happens.  There's no reason to make it not good.  Let the characters have their fun, don't spoil things with a last few sentences to say it wasn't that great after all.  What's the point in that?

So, good story, long, drawn out ending, could have ended it better.  That's the problem with any book, it can be the best read in the world but people always remember the last taste in their mouths - what you give them in the end.  Make it memorable and worthy of the rest of the book.  Don't just throw things together so you can finish it.  If it was worth writing, then it was worth having a nice conclusion.

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