Debut novelist J. H. Gelernter’s “Hold Fast” (out May 4) is a ripping Napoleonic War adventure that leans heavily on its influences but nevertheless manages to chart its own course to a satisfying conclusion.
The year is 1803; Boston-born Englishman Thomas Grey is in mourning for his wife, Paulette, who was killed after the ship on which they were traveling is attacked by a French frigate, the Fidele. Heartbroken, Grey resigns from the British secret service, intending to retire to a quiet life as a lumber merchant in his hometown. But before he can reach his new life in the New World, he’s approached by an Irish republican who attempts to recruit him into a French intelligence network.
An ardent patriot, Grey’s only consideration is whether he should simply inform his former colleagues of this emerging threat to Britain via letter or dive in head first and take matters into his own hands. “The very point of his departure from London had been to get out of this squalid world. He had done his part.” But the prospect of revenge for his murdered wife tips the scales. “Perhaps he could discover the name of the man who’d been in command of Fidele when Paulette had been killed. And then kill him.” Grey accepts the Irishman’s offer, and the two set off for Paris, where Grey hopes to avenge both his wife and his country.
Once in Paris, Grey proves himself to be a smooth operator, always aware of the odds and planning for every eventuality. He discovers the identity of his wife’s killer, Captain Jean-Anne d’Aumont, and inveigles an invitation to the man’s family estate where he’s on the lookout for information that might help him foil the French plot against England — and an opportunity to do away with his host.
Gelernter isn’t shy about his inspirations, namechecking Patrick O’Brian, Bernard Cornwell and Ian Fleming in his acknowledgments, and “Hold Fast” does read like a bit of a mashup of the three: big, naval action set pieces; feats of derring-do; and plenty of swaggering spy craft. In Grey, one can see the faint outline of Bond just under the surface, like a frame over which Gelernter’s fresh canvas is pulled. He’s a gambler, though he plays basset, not baccarat; he fancies deadly gadgets, such as the impressive Girardoni air rifle; and he’s game for a quick dalliance with a beautiful woman when the opportunity arises.
But Gelernter adds enough of his own color to make Grey his own man, with his own unique moral and ethical code. For example, after dispatching an enemy late in the book, Grey washes the blood off his hands only to sit down to draft a letter of apology to the woman he romanced and must now leave behind, signing it “with all the earnestness at my command.”
The pace of the book is swift, but Gelernter is wise to pause occasionally to luxuriate in the novel’s period setting. He treats readers to a detailed explanation of basset, essential to understanding just how badly Grey beats his adversary, Polignac, and why the latter becomes so incensed he challenges our hero to a duel. On a visit to d’Aumont’s vineyard, the captain’s sister, Julia, offers Grey a lesson on the art and science of champagne. D’Aumont himself gives Grey an exhaustive review of the real-life Girardoni rifle. When Grey sits for a meal at a French restaurant, Gelernter spares nothing from his description of the menu, running down a long list of delicacies, as well as the very structure of the dinner service. “To start,” says the waiter, “you have the choice of nine different soups, which are followed by seven sorts of pies; those who do not like pies may have oysters, by the dozen.” It’s a lot of fun.
However, Grey’s super heroic durability strains credulity. He collects a number of serious injuries in the course of his adventure — slashed in the duel, stabbed in the gut, stretched on the rack — but is still able to get the drop on a number of hale and hearty henchmen even though his trials have left him with “the agility of a newborn baby.” Ironically, as Grey takes more damage he becomes increasingly reliant on brute strength, overt threats and violence to extricate himself from danger; the cautious strategist of the early chapters is replaced by a man of pure action precisely when you’d expect the opposite. And while Gelernter puts Grey into a number of tight spots and thorny moral dilemmas, he’s also quick to let his protagonist off the hook a bit too easily, allowing him to choose the gallant path without forcing him to sacrifice much in return — a missed opportunity for deeper characterization and motivation that might be useful in future stories.
Ultimately, “Hold Fast” is an immersive, entertaining debut, and Gelernter has more than done his duty with his thoughtful, learned depiction of this deeply engrossing period in history.