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A flag of truce review
on 13 May 2016
A Flag of Truce is the fourth novel in Donachie’s John Pearce series. The story takes place in Toulon 1793, during the period of the French revolution – a period of great conflict and shifting alliances in Europe.
Lieutenant John Pearce returns triumphant from a successful mission in Corsica, but receives a mixed welcome, particularly from his arch-enemy, the deceitful Captain Ralph Barclay of HMS Brilliant. Pearce demands that Captain Barclay, the man who originally pressed him and his fellow Pelicans into the Navy, be tried at home by a civilian court. But as the Siege of Toulon escalates in violence and the revolutionary army prepares to attack, all thoughts of revenge must be put on hold.
John’s Admiral Hood acknowledges his skill and bravery but distrusts his egalitarianism (Pearce’s father supported the French Revolution). Pearce has called for the court-martial of Captain Barclay who illegally impressed him and his friends – which he is entitled to do – and Authority would rather it was swept under the carpet. Pearce is entrusted by the commander with escorting a large group of radical French sailors to a port on the Atlantic coast, where they are to be set free. However, while Pearce is gone, the backstabbing Admiral Hotham, a friend of Barclay, fixes a court martial where Barclay is found innocent for lack of evidence.
Admiral Hotham – who owes Barclay money – is in charge of the court-martial and determined to clear him, by perjury if necessary. For this, Pearce must be got out of the way. What better than the difficult and dangerous task of escorting 5000 French, supposedly royalist, sailors back to France? There are plenty of deeds of derring-do, battles by sea and land, a duel, a storm and a near miss with the guillotine to keep readers hooked. Not to mention Pearce’s growing interest in Barclay’s lovely and increasingly disaffected wife, Emily.
In the end Pearce’s mission turns out to be much more difficult than expected. When he eventually returns, he finds Barclay acquitted and exempt from further trial under the law of double jeopardy. Despite clear warnings not to do so, he begins a romance with Emily Barclay, but mayhem surrounds the evacuation of Toulon and the revolutionary forces, including Napoleon Bonaparte, are closing in to retake the port.
A Flag of Truce is the best in the series so far. It is a somewhat “noir” novel which in a very interesting fashion tells a twisting story that feels very authentic. David Donachie is well-versed in the history of this period, and writes convincingly. I found this to be a very engaging novel which I do not hesitate to recommend.. Donachie is good at plot and the various strands: the court-martial, Pearce’s exploits and his relationship with Emily, intertwine satisfactorily and help to keep up the tension. I also liked the way that Pearce has his own agenda: we learn something of his republican background, for example, and this gives his character added depth; we understand where he is coming from and why he acts in the way he does. Donachie also succeeds admirably in the difficult job of getting across the political complexities of the time without resorting to lecturing.