by Mary Frisbee
In Ken Jennings’ insightful new book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks (Scribner, 2012) he discusses the inventors of lands non-existent on the globe, that reside fully-envisioned in the creators’ minds. He is especially enthused about J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, offering him as a prime example.
I found myself remembering how much I love the nine sailing mysteries written by British novelist Sam Llewellyn between 1987 and 2010. Llewellyn selected an uninhabited stretch of the south coast of England between Bridport and Torquay to plunk down his fictional village of Pulteney. I perused the atlas while reading his novels (the settings of which range all over the world), intrigued by his idyllic fishing and sailing village with its convincingly described harbor, dwellings, beaches, marshes, and a fearsome offshore rock rampart called The Teeth. Llewellyn clearly sees Pulteney in his mind’s eye, just as the mapheads in Jennings’ book imagine theirs.
Though each novel is a stand-alone in terms of protagonist, all are connected to Pulteney, from whence village characters sail off to adventure. In Llewellyn’s first book we are introduced to Charlie Agutter (Dead Reckoning, 1989,) a yacht designer embodying “old Pulteney.” Agutter and his nautical companions find themselves in conflict with “new Pulteney”–monied, sometimes criminal, invaders including unscrupulous developers, society yachtsmen, and crooked financiers. Next, we meet professional sailor James Dixon, representing the world of yacht racing in Blood Orange, 1988; and Martin Devereaux, world-class helmsman and partner in a run-down marina at Marshcote near Pulteney (Death Roll, 1989.) Mick Savage is a besieged yacht builder in Riptide, 1992, and in my personal favorite, Maelstrom, 1994, Llewellyn conjures up Fred Hope, eco-warrior and owner of a “green” hotel on Pulteney’s Danglas Bay. Repeating characters wander in and out of the books like old friends, particularly Charlie Agutter, the glue binding the seafaring community together.
Sam Llewellyn grew up in the Isles of Scilly, twenty-eight miles off the coast of Cornwall, and attended Eton and Oxford. On his website he writes, “As you have probably worked out by now, the sea is one of the ruling passions of my life. While cruising and racing in boats ranging from dinghies to mega yachts, I noticed that they have a kind of pressure-cooking effect on the emotions…the usual levers–greed, jealousy and spite (are) beefed up when surrounded by water. The object of these books is to give you all the thrills of yachting with none of the excess moisture, and to keep your heart in your mouth long past your bedtime.”
His books are seafaring thrillers but they also embody the best of classic whodunits. as the reader is posed with a murder and challenged to solve it before the protagonist does. Nevertheless, action writing is Llewellyn’s forte. He eloquently captures the chaos and violence that ensues when a man and his boat are pitted against the vicissitudes of nature. The pitch of these nautical adventures is ramped up with danger from human treachery as well–the dilemmas are riveting, the writing muscular, and the tension inescapable.
Llewellyn has been called “the Dick Francis of sailing” but this isn’t an apt comparison. While Francis is a fine writer of horse racing novels, Llewelyn’s books are much richer and more far-ranging, not only in terms of geography but in content. He intertwines urgent global issues into his plots: war and famine in Africa, illegal whale hunting, human rights, political and financial corruption, and the pollution of marine environments. These issues are brought into human scale through the predicaments of his stouthearted characters, each possessing a strong moral compass as well as all-too-human weaknesses. In this quote, we see Llewellyn’s love of nature as Fred Hope strives to subvert a whale hunt on the whaler “Hyskeir”: “A black and shiny island remained. It said, very low and powerful, whooph. And that poplar of whale-breath rose into the wind, and was torn away, as the rest of the back slid through the sea. I glimpsed the shape of it outlined in bubbles, impossibly huge, huge as “Hyskeir”, but alive.”
If action is Llewellyn’s super-strength, his Kryptonite in this series appears to be his female characters. Either helpmates or vixens, these rather two-dimensional characters orbit about his male protagonists. Even his most intriguing woman–around-the-world solo sailor Mary Dyson, in Maelstrom–seems invented primarily to provide a surrogate parent to protagonist Fred Hope. Why not write a book about Mary’s voyages? Llewellyn follows in the tradition of doughty male British writers most at home with other men, avoiding intimacy with the women in their books.
Llewellyn novels read just fine out of sequence. But why not start with Dead Reckoning in which we are introduced to Pulteney and Charlie Agutter? As you read through the novels, the fishing village will grow in your mind, detailed and fully-formed. I want to fly to England, drive out of London toward Cornwall’s Land’s End, and stop for a week on Danglas Bay. If only Pulteney actually existed outside the vibrant imagination of Sam Llewellyn.
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