Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Bloody Black Flag: A Spider John Mystery

Margaret S. Hamilton

When I think of pirates, I remember Blackbeard, John Lafitte, Long John Silver, and now, Spider John Rush. At Murder and Mayhem in Chicago, I heard Ohio journalist and author Steve Goble discuss his debut book which features a carpenter-turned-pirate set in 1722 New England and the Caribbean.

 Spider John is a victim of circumstance, a sailor forced to join a pirate ship after his own ship is attacked. Desperate to evade the law, he and his friend, Ezra Coombs, sign on with another pirate ship, the Plymouth Dream.

Spider tugged gently at the oar and watched the dark shoreline recede. The oar had a few rough spots, and a splinter poked the scabby knob on his left hand where his small finger used to be. That scab had bothered him already; it always did in cold weather, and this was October off the New England coast. Spider winced, tugged the tiny speck out with his teeth, then spat it into the chilly night air to vanish in the deep. He’d smooth out the oar later. For now, he focused on being quiet and doing the work. (The Bloody Black Flag, p.7)

Ezra is murdered under suspicious circumstances, and Spider John is determined to identify his killer. Deck-smart amongst the seventy-plus pirates on board, Spider John methodically eliminates suspects as he evades a psychotic captain who provokes a mutiny while he searches for the return of a precious object.

“What is that man’s story? Spider wondered aloud.

“Odin? He sailed with Blackbeard.”

“He sailed with Edward Teach?” Blackbeard was the notorious pirate of legend, as dread and frightening a figure as piracy had every produced. Tales of his crimes and murders rolled like wind across the Spanish Main and up and down the colonial coast. (The Bloody Black Flag, p.73).

Goble’s research is meticulous—ship-mounted guns, pistols and cutlasses, eighteenth century tattoos, beer and cold salted meat. When the Plymouth Dream, renamed the Red Viper, is attacked, his battle scene is choreographed with pinpoint precision.

Discipline was not a word that might have described Viper’s crew most days, but when it came to battle everyone knew his role. Spider’s job in a fight was to prepare for close combat, either to repel boarders or to charge across the enemy’s rail, unless the Viper had been hulled or otherwise needed immediate repairs. He took his place and watched the frigate’s steady, tireless advance. He could just see faces now, peering back at him from the king’s vessel…The frigate likely mounted twenty-eight guns at least, and those guns would be full of grape and chain to tear bloody shreds out of Viper’s crew and rigging. She would not be satisfied with sinking Viper; indeed, she would not dare, for there was something aboard the pirate vessel that the frigate’s captain desperately sought. (The Bloody Black Flag, p.202-3)

Goble’s book shares several aspects of an isolated island mystery: a limited group of suspects, the hunt for a valuable object, told from Spider’s point of view. When Spider John unmasks the thief, it’s no surprise. The clues are there. The valuable object itself is dubious: a brass cylinder used in spy craft.

Other than the phantom frigate tailing the Plymouth Dream, there are no subplots. I prefer a tangled web of subplots to maintain suspense. The plot seems rather simple: Spider’s goals are solving a murder and locating a missing brass cylinder.

Spider John finally identifies and kills the man who murdered Ezra and evades capture when he dives into the shark-infested waters of Port Royal, Jamaica.

By the end of the book, Spider has assembled a small gang of fellow pirates. I’m sure he’ll find plenty for them to do in Port Royal and on the high seas in Goble’s next book, The Devil’s Wind, to be published in September 2018. I wonder how many books it will take Spider John before he returns to Nantucket? Or perhaps he’ll never return.

Readers and writers, what is your favorite pirate adventure?


  1. Sounds fascinating. I like historically accurate fiction.

    Perhaps my imagination is overly influenced by commercial products, but I can envision someone called Spider John being sprayed by a huge can of Black Flag insecticide.

    Or perhaps preparing to fight Dajjil, a false prophet. Those who do battle with him are supposedly doing so under a black flag.

    But back to pirates. I will have to take a look at this.

  2. Pirates are so popular, aren't they? I finally read Treasure Island about ten years ago and it was a great yarn - easy to see why it's endured so long and why so many movies have taken inspiration from it.
    BTW I love the term "deck-smart."

  3. It sounds like a fun read. I love the old black and white pirate movies.

  4. Thanks, Margaret, for the review. My husband reads all forms of 18th and 19th century adventures set on the high seas. He would enjoy this book.

  5. The only pirate book I read was Treasure Island, and that was years and years ago.
    This one sounds interesting, though.

  6. My favorite?--the real story of Blackbeard, at least as much as anyone can know about him. One of the authorities on Blackbeard, and possible relation of Blackbeard, is Robert E. Lee. No, not the Southern General, but a retired law professor from Wake Forest University. He's written many law books, but Blackbeard The Pirate was a hobby that he researched, going back to England to find out more about Blackbeard's real identity. I used his research for a WIP I wrote in which Blackbeard was one of my main characters. Was he crazy--maybe like a fox!

  7. Thanks, all. I loved Goble's glimpse of an eighteenth-century pirate's life, and look forward to reading his new book.