Book review

Jack Holborn by Leon Garfield (1964)

Jack Holborn is nobody. He doesn't have anything of his own, no family, no home, not even a proper name of his own. You'd probably run away to sea too, if you were in his position. And you might think that life has dished up the worst it can offer, until you crouch, terrified, in the blackness of the hold listening to the ship you have stowed away on being seized by pirates. That's what happens to Jack. All the honest crew are dead when he is eventually hauled onto the deck.

He is spared and put to work with the gin-soaked pirate cook Pobjoy. But it is some days later before Jack meets the dreadful pirate captain himself:

I got a great shock, for he was not as I'd ever pictured him. The sun shone full upon him and lent him such radiance and warmth that I couldn't but exclaim in my heart:
"This is no Captain of murderers! Not this good, kind, simple-seeming, just man! He is aboard by mistake! He keeps to his cabin in melancholy at the wickedness of the others." I got to my feet and would have pulled off my cap, if I'd had one - just as Mister Pobjoy foretold - for this neatly dressed gentleman with close-cut grey hair and country complexion had such an air about him! I couldn't believe he was who he was, for he stood there so plain and easy, with his legs astride and his hands behind his back. Maybe his eyes were a little cold and fish-like, as though they'd looked on more than most men's; but they seemed to quarrel with his face rather than suit it.
"You must be Jack," he said pleasantly, and, dusting a piece of deck with his handkerchief, squatted down on the boards. Dumb with astonishment, I squatted likewise - as he'd signed me to do - and there we sat, the Captain and me, in the middle of the deck, like a pair of friends, with the crew going about their business as if nothing in the world had happened"!

But even more remarkable than that, the Captain seems to think he knows something of Jack's origins. In a strange contract the Captain offers to tell Jack all he knows if Jack will save his life three times. Seems like an impossible task, doesn't it? That's what Jack thinks too, but as things turn out, Jack gets his chances.

Let's not forget that Jack is on board the Charming Molly with the roughest band of cut-throats that ever roamed the high seas. Only a few days later the Captain and some of his men are ambushed at a remote hidden harbour. The Captain is brought back, gravely wounded, by his number one, the dapper Mister Morris. And it is in the long, hot days that follow, while the crew wait to see if their captain will live, that a single castaway is plucked out of the ocean - the mysterious Solomon Trumpet.

Well, he's about as lovely as a bag of worms. Solomon Trumpet seduces the crew with talk of treasure and mutiny, and that is Jack's first opportunity to save the Captain's life. You will have to read the book to see how he does it, but hardly has everyone recovered from that little incident when the Charming Molly is lost in a storm at sea. Broken on rocks, the only survivors to make it to the tropical shore are the Captain, Mister Morris the sailing master, Solomon Trumpet and Jack.

What a multitude of dark intents are harboured in the minds of these men! What is the secret shared between Solomon Trumpet and the Captain? Whose side is Jack on? Can he still save the Captain's life twice more and hold him to his promise to reveal what he knows of Jack's father?

It's a wild and exciting adventure. Read it! I think you will love it. You may find the language a little difficult at first, but don't let that put you off. The story is narrated by Jack himself and you will soon get used to his manner of speech. Just let the drama of the story pull you along!

What can I read next?

Leon Garfield has written many books mainly set in historical London. If you enjoy Jack Holborn you could look at:

  • Smith
  • Black Jack
  • The December Rose
  • The Apprentices

Of course, you couldn't fail to spot the similarity with Robert Louis Stevenson's book:

And R M Ballantyne wrote about bloodthirsty pirates too in his book:

Then looking at a wider range of adventure books, Philip Pullman has written an extraordinary trilogy with complex ideas and language, which might keep you occupied:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

Jack Holborn features in these lists: