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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 March 2006
Like many, I loved old adventures such as Treasure Island and Kidnapped when I first read them as a child. Several years ago, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda named this as being of the same caliber, so I finally sought out a copy to fall into. Written at the turn of the 20th century, the story is set in a small village on the Dorset coast (allegedly based on East Fleet), circa the 1750s. There lives John Trenchard, a classic adventure hero: age 15, orphaned and living with a nasty (though not cruel) aunt, and pining for the beautiful daughter of the local lord. The village of Moonfleet has two intriguing aspects to it. One is a legend relating to a massive -- and possibly cursed -- diamond purportedly owned by the former lord of the manor and possibly hidden somewhere in the vicinity. The other is the village's long history of illicit trade with smugglers bringing in untaxed spirits from France and other contraband. Their main contact in town is the tavern-owner, Elsevir, who is the true hero of the story.
As in Treasure Island, things really start rolling when John gets entangled with Elsevir and the smugglers and more or less joins their gang. When the local lord tries to ambush them one dawn, blood is drawn and Elsevir and John are forced to flee and take to ground for some months. The fugitives then embark on a quest to locate the missing diamond and so make their fortune. John is especially keen on being able to return to Moonfleet a wealthy man, so that he may secure the hand of his fair lady. Of course, events don't transpire so easily, and further adventures take them to Holland, where events take a turn for the worse before a semi-triumphal homecoming.
All of this is fine -- but not that great. The story and characters definitely feel somewhat derivative, and some of the elements feel quite clumsy. For example, the lord of the manor is a nasty, mean character, but there's no indication as to why this is so. Similarly, the prim stern aunt is a stereotype of the type, and a jewel dealer who plays a key role is instinctively venal without reason. Near the end, the heroes face calamity due to circumstances of their own exceedingly unlikely making. The cagey smuggler Elsevir exhibits naivitee that beggars belief. Which is not to suggest that the book is terrible, merely that it's not that amazing. Finally, I should point out that despite the words of many reviewers the story does not involve pirates at all. (Inexplicably, the cover of one edition even goes so far as to reproduce a painting of a boarding scene, complete with cutlasses, pistols, and scurvy seadogs.) The book was made into a rather forgettable 1955 film directed by the great Fritz Lang.
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