So I got there in the end! Another trip away with work, another Sharpe book – this one sadly the last in the run which has kept me entertained during holidays and work trips for some years.
Sharpe’s Devil by Bernard Cornwell is set in 1820 and reunites Sharpe and his Irish sidekick Harper (who has put on some timber since we last saw him due to his new job as a pub landlord). They are sailing to Chile in search of the missing Blas Vivar, husband of Doña Louisa Vivar, who featured in Sharpe’s Rifles.
Doña Louisa turns up at Sharpe’s farm in France and tells him that Don Blas Vivar (let’s call him MacGuffin or DBV for short) disappeared while serving as Captain-General of a Spanish colony in Chile and has either fallen victim to rebels or his work rival Miguel Bautista. Sharpe needs the money that she is offering him to find his old friend and of course he can’t resist a bit of daring-do.
On the voyage aboard a Spanish frigate they stop off at the island of St Helena to call in on the exiled French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, as you do. He charms Sharpe and slips him a signed and framed portrait for one of his fans (of which there are apparently many spread about across the world) among the rebels in Chile.
They are met at the Chilean port of Valdivia by dodgy British consul George Blair (everyone is corrupt in the colony it seems) who tells them that DBV has been found dead in a ditch and was buried a few months ago in a church in nearby Puerto Crucero. The circumstances of his death are vague, but given what a principled and saintly man DBV was it seems likely that the corrupt Captain-General Bautista is to blame.
Captain Marquinez, Bautista’s adjunct, is all smiles and without the expected need of a bribe from Sharpe, arranges the necessary passes and permits for him and Harper to go to Puerto Crucero, dig up DBV’s remains and return them to Spain. While the paperwork is being handed over, Sharpe and Harper’s belongings (including Napoleon’s gift) are stolen. They interrupt the burglary but are unable to apprehend the thieves.
The next day, they meet with Bautista who is surrounded by his lackeys. Bautista claims he has caught the thieves, although Sharpe doesn’t recognise them. Then in a horrible scene the much-feared Captain-General shows his sadistic nature by branding each man with an ‘L’ to mark them as thieves even though they will likely be shot. The duo’s belongings are returned, but Sharpe discovers Napoleon’s gift is missing. Unable to reveal he was carrying it to a rebel soldier, he shrugs the loss off.
On the overland journey to Puerto Crucero, the duo stay the night at a garrison fort and are warned by the local commander that they will probably be ambushed and murdered by cavalry sergeant Dregara. A local scout guides them safely through the Chilean foothills in the dead of night thus evading any plotted ambush.
Sharpe and Harper arrive safely in Puerto Crucero and are welcomed by the local Major Suarez. They visit the church and start to exhume the DBV’s body from inside the church, however they are interrupted by the arrival of Sergeant Dregara who has them arrested.
The duo are imprisoned in a reasonably nice room for almost a week until they are escorted to an audience with Captain-General Bautista. Bautista reveals that there is a coded message hidden behind the portrait of Napoleaon and accuses Sharpe and Harper of being spies. The local scout who helped them is executed by the cruel and unusual means of a cannon. The duo have all their belongings and weapons confiscated, and they are sent to work as seaman on the Spanish frigate on which they arrived, which is sailing back to Spain.
Cochrane, a disgraced Lord and former officer of the Royal Navy officer (and a real historic figure), is a piratical scourge on the seas around the colony. He is being paid by the Chilean rebels to fight against the Spanish. In his flagship O’Higgins, he ambushes the Spanish frigate. With no loyalty to the Spanish crew and seeing a potential opportunity to return to Chile, Sharpe and Harper help Cochrane’s forces capture the Spanish vessel. They then set sail for a suicidal attack upon Valdivia. However the Spanish frigate is in such a state of disrepair that they switch their target to the nearer port of Puerto Crucero.
Sharpe and Harper help Cochrane’s small band of men capture Puerto Crucero from the cowardly Spanish, in a replay of tactics used by Wellington during one of his battles – using the guns of the O’Higgins to bombard the defending musketeers who threaten to stall the rebels attack on the stone steps up to the main battlements. Inside the church DBV’s gravestone is smashed open (someone has newly cemented it in place since they’re last visit) and the stinking coffin is opened to reveal some rocks and the body of a putrefying dead dog. ‘Woof! Woof!’ laughs Cochrane.
A Spanish prisoner (who it is later revealed was one of Cochrane’s men) tells Sharpe that DBV is actually alive and being held captive by Captain-General Bautista in a spooky tower in Valdivia. Cochrane is delighted by this coincidence since he wanted Sharpe to join him in his suicidal attack on Valdivia – an attack which will involve a few hundred rebels facing two-thousand men with muskets and cannon arrayed in several forts.
The rebels enter the port disguised as Spanish troop ships and Sharpe leads an assault on one of the forts. Using some ever so conveniently placed fencing as improvised ladders they mount the battlements and after killing a few Spanish musketeers the rest of the garrison flees toward the neighbouring port. There then follows a rather unbelievable domino effect in which pretty much all the forts of the West of the port are taken. The next morning Cochrane is delighted to see through his telescope that the Spanish are abandoning the remaining ports and fleeing upriver toward the city of Valdivia.
Without waiting for reinforcements, Cochrane marches a small band of men into the city, where Sharpe and Harper find Sergeant Dregara among the defenders and kill him. They pursue Captain Marquinez but he shuts himself in the tower where DBV is supposedly held. The riflemen use a cannon to blow open the door and chase up the tower stairs. What they find at the top is a fancy bedroom stuffed with riches and with the body of
Bautista lying dead on the bed. Seeing his imminent defeat and embarrassment of his secret gay relationship with Marquinez, he has committed suicide. In an ante-chamber, Marquinez is about to follow suit, but Sharpe stops him.
So where the hell is DBV? Sharpe soon realises that he’s been led a merry dance by Cochrane. Cochrane reveals that he has DBV stowed away on a small deserted island in the middle of nowhere (the same island on which Robinson Crusoe is based). It transpires that the coded message was for Cochrane and that there is a plan to rescue Napoleon from St Helena and help him conquer a new empire in South America. Cochrane conned Sharpe because he needed help liberating Valdivia and finding the coded message.
Cochrane, showing that he’s not all bad, gives Sharpe and Harper some loot and releases DBV from his island prison where he’s probably been living off nothing but goat meat and coconut water for the last few months. However, Cochrane stops the trio travelling back to Europe until Napoleon has been given enough time to escape from St Helena.
On their release, Sharpe, Harper and DVB go to St Helena, expecting the worst, but are told that Napoleon is dead. Relieved that another bloody war has been averted, they all go home and as far as we know all live happily ever after.
After the glory of Sharpe’s Waterloo this closing instalment of the Sharpe series seems rather tacked-on and a little disappointing.