Author: Antonin Varenne Published by McElhose Press Price 23.95 euro
by Marco Vichi Translated by Stephen Sartarelli Published by Hodder & Stoughton Price €25
The year is 1852 and a group of East India soldiers are told that they are going on a mission into Burmese territory in an attempt to open up a breach head in the companies ongoing war with a local King in the area. In charge of the men is a man called Arthur Bowman who over the next 500 or so pages the reader will get to know very well indeed.
While he is the sergeant in charge of the men he is not the commander, a position that is left to an officer. Bowman picks out the men to go on the mission but very soon they begin to encounter one problem after another. They are not allowed to identify themselves as Company men, later you find out why, the monsoon season starts early and before they know it they are captured by several boats full of enemy sailors. No matter how tough the men think they are, and they are tough, especially Bowman, the next 14 months they spend as prisoners changes all of that. In the end they are freed but they are just wraiths, shadows of their former selves. Bowman gets back to London and secures a job as a policeman working at the Company's docks. It is there that he encounters a murder victim, with the word 'survive' written in blood above it that will see him travel the world in search of the murderer.
He knows that the killer was one of the men with him but now he is the one who is in the frame for the murder. His general strangeness, his alcoholism and opium addiction doesn't help either. Finding the killer becomes an obsession, even when he discovers that the man has moved his field of operations to the States. He follows him there and tries to track him down, moving slowly through the growing country.
What Varenne is very good on is evoking a very strong sense of time and place, Bowman's travels through the newly opening up 'Wild West' is very well done in particular. What isn't so great is his handling of the plot. There are big holes where just even a few paragraphs or a page or two could have clarified things something. The huge defining moment of Bowman's life, imprisoned and tortured in the jungle, is just brushed over in a sentence and why was it so necessary for the man to travel all the way to the States and then go all over the country to find the man? Bowman isn't the sort of character to waste much time on introspection or self-analysis and that is fine but at some stage there does have to be a certain level of questioning why he is doing what he is doing. In the same manner the reader does as they turn the next page to continue.