A REVIEW OF `BLACK BARTLEMY'S TREASURE' by JEFFERY FARNOL
`Black Bartlemy's Treasure' (1920) is a 17th century adventure story written in the style of `Treasure Island' and `Robinson Crusoe'. As one who has thoroughly enjoyed both of its influencing novels, I was expecting a story of Cup Final action and excitement. However, what I experienced was akin to watching a strong first-leg away tie in a European football competition. Allow me to explain...
The first 40% of `Black Bartlemy's Treasure' is terrific. The reader is immediately thrown into the turbulent atmosphere of the lower decks a Spanish galleon, home to one Martin Conisby. Conisby finds himself a Spanish slave and victim of the tortuous whip, owing to the treacherous dealings of a land-owning rival family, the Bartons. Contriving to escape from his hellish existence, a scarred Martin returns to his homeland, swearing vengeance against his betrayer. However, now a penniless vagrant, he falls in with various cut-throats and scoundrels, including the wonderfully-penned Adam Penfeather, who lures Martin into a life at sea via his tale of unimaginable treasure that lies a-waiting on a Spanish Main island. After various scrapes and ale-house skirmishes, Martin finds himself aboard `The Faithful Friend'. His mission is to track down Sir Richard Barton (missing, having sailed for the Caribbean), whilst shipmate Penfeather has dreams of gold and gems and thwarting the gang of blood-thirsty buccaneers stalking him on land and sea. Added to the mix is one Joan Barton, Sir Richard's daughter, whose looks and winning ways cause tumult inside the revenge-obsessed Conisby. However, it would seem that there are other crew members with an agenda of their own.
As can be gleaned from this précis, the earlier chapters of `Black Bartlemy's Treasure' have all of the key ingredients of a great swash-buckling adventure: A wronged hero, mysterious villains, beautiful damsels, and hidden treasure.
However, from the moment that Martin is cast adrift at sea with Joan Barton, the wheels of the story suddenly slow down and fall off. Indeed, within only a handful of chapters, we go from the intriguing suspense of blood-stained rags and possible drugging on board `The Faithful Friend' to the prolonged description of the making of a wooden spoon (complete with a drawing of said eating implement)! From chapter 14, what Farnol essentially offers is a desert-island romance that sacrifices all of the engaging plot elements. As stated, the only comparison I can give is that of a football manager who decides to `shut up shop' in the second half of a tricky first-leg away tie having gone into a 2-0 lead. I wonder at what point Farnol decided that `Black Bartlemy's Treasure' deserved a sequel (1921's `Martin Conisby's Revenge'), for it seems as if he made a conscious decision to pad-out the first volume to set up its successor. The author even acknowledges the dullness of many of the latter chapters by allowing Martin (the narrator) to apologise to his readers for their length and lack of incident. He even suggests that the reader might want to skip certain passages!
Adding to the problems is the fact that Conisby develops into a wholly unlikeable character. Naturally he would be scarred by his experiences as a galley slave. However, his moodiness and self-pitying wear thin and one loses interest in his expected redemption via a good woman's love. Furthermore, he makes some spectacularly stupid decisions, not least when throwing Penfeather's treasure map overboard before landing on Black Bartlemy's island. Not only does this prevent an exciting treasure hunt from taking place, but it also makes it clear that Martin doesn't give two hoots about the loot. Given the soppy romance that follows, what is there to sustain the reader's interest? And as for Conisby's final decision that leads to the sequel, don't get me started! As the book ended, I couldn't quite grasp whom his revenge would be aimed at given that he seemed virtually entirely responsible for his own predicament.
But enough of my ranting, all of which is born of frustration. I can rarely recall reading a book of two such diverse halves. Now, it hasn't put me off trying to get my hands on the sequel as I suspect that Farnol has hoarded many a `whizz-bang' in its telling. However, as an exercise in lost momentum, `Black Bartlemy's Treasure' takes some beating. Compare it to Rafael Sabatini's similar, but ultimately triumphant `Captain Blood' and the flaws are obvious. I suspect that with a serious abridgement of its latter stages, `Black Bartlemy's Treasure' would work admirably. However, without it, it feels like holding a thin layer of diamonds obscuring a pile of cut glass.
Barty's Score: 7/10 (9/10 for chapters 1- 12 and a disappointing 5/10 for what follows)