This is the sequel to Black Drop, Leonora Nattrass’ 2021 debut novel which introduced us to the character of Laurence Jago. Blue Water works well as a standalone historical mystery, but I would recommend reading both books in order if you can.
It’s December 1794 and former government clerk Laurence Jago has just left Britain aboard the packet ship Tankerville. The ship’s destination is Philadelphia, where one of Jago’s fellow passengers, Theodore Jay, will deliver a treaty to President Washington. The Jay Treaty, negotiated by Theodore’s father, the American envoy John Jay, is designed to promote peace between the two nations and prevent America from joining forces with France against Britain. War Office official Mr Jenkinson, also on board the Tankerville, has offered to hide the Treaty in a safe place, but when he is found dead and the papers disappear Jago realises it’s up to him to find them and prevent them from falling into French hands.
Well, I enjoyed Black Drop but this second book is even better! With almost the entire story taking place at sea and therefore with a limited number of characters, the mystery has a ‘locked room’ feel and kept me guessing until the end. Leonora Nattrass very skilfully casts suspicion on first one character then another and it soon appears that almost everyone on the ship has a secret to hide. Although I correctly predicted a few of the plot twists (and was impatiently waiting for Jago to discover them too) the eventual revelation of the fate of the Treaty came as a complete surprise to me. I was also surprised when I read the author’s note at the end and saw that some parts of the plot were based on historical fact, although the details have been added to and embellished using the author’s imagination.
Laurence Jago continues to be an engaging narrator, though not always the most reliable one due to his occasional poor judgement, the secret sympathies we learned about in the previous book and his tendency to succumb to the temptations of ‘black drop’ laudanum. I was pleased to see the return of some other characters from the first book including the journalist William Philpott (whose attempts to compile a dictionary of seafaring superstitions add some humour to the book) and Theodore Jay’s slave and companion Peter Williams, always a calm and wise presence amid the onboard chaos. And of course, there are plenty of colourful new characters amongst the passengers, including two French aristocrats, an American plantation owner and an Irish actress with a dancing bear!
Choosing to set this novel at sea gives it a very different feel from Black Drop. Apart from a few glimpses of Madeira and then Praia, capital of Cape Verde, the whole story unfolds aboard the Tankerville and we are given lots of insights into life during a long sea voyage. The use of nautical terminology never becomes too overwhelming but it all feels authentic and due to the setting, time period, elegant prose and frequent encounters with French warships, I was strongly reminded of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I was quite sure Leonora Nattrass must have read O’Brian and when I reached the acknowledgements at the end of the book I found that I was right!
If it’s not already clear, I loved this book and hope there’s going to be a third in the series.
Thanks to Viper for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book #5 read for R.I.P. XVII
Book #56 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.