Wildtrack is a nautical contemporary thriller from the author probably better known for his historical action series such as Sharpe and the Last Kingdom. I have exhausted both these series for now (there’s one last Last Kingdom book due out in paperback reasonably soon and rumours of Sharpe’s return to action). However, I have amassed a backlog of what I think of Cornwell curiosities, which started with Redcoat. Wildtrack is nothing like Redcoat and it starts off rather rough around the edges with rather cliched dialogue and action before finding it’s sea-legs and taking you on a fun journey across the Atlantic.
The story is narrated by Falklands veteran Nick Sandman, who has been awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions during the conflict. Having taken a bullet in his spine, the doctor’s said he wouldn’t walk again but he forces himself to, so he can get back onto the deck of his beloved boat Sycorax and sail away from his ex-wife who is bleeding him dry. However, when he gets back to the quay where his boat should be, he finds it has been pulled roughly ashore and stripped of masts, copper and valuable equipment.
The state of Sycorax is a metaphor for Nick’s physical state. Penniless, Nick is forced to accept the help of an egotistic TV star Tony Bannister (who imagined was like Noel Edmonds) who now lives in his father’s old house. His father was once rich but is now in prison for fraud. Nick begrudgingly agrees to film a TV show with Bannister directed by the beautiful but Medusa-like Angela. However he soon runs into an attractive American investigator Jill-Beth who works for the father of Bannister’s dead wife.
There is some uncertainty surrounding the death at sea of Bannister’s wife. The inquest reports describe an accidental death during a storm, but her father, a powerful shipping magnate called Kassouli, is convinced Bannister killed her. Add some salty sea-dog, brutish South African and army characters and you have all the ingredients for a good boat-based romp.
I have to admit I skimmed all the technically descriptive sections of the book referring to kitting out the Sycorax, navigation techniques and sailing procedures, but it’s obvious that Cornwell knows what he’s talking about. Also he has a real skill in embodying the ocean with a life of it’s own, and observing the nature of rivers and the sea, but I’m not a huge fan of sailing ships. That aspect of the story kind of reminded me of being a kid and reading the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. It was all very atmospheric but rather detracted from the author’s characterisations.
Nick Sandman fits a kind of TV trope – wounded but heroic and in need of a good woman – and the two main love interests are rather two-dimensional, although both reasonably strong female characters with flaws of their own. Sandman typically places both squarely on pedestals in the same fashion that both Richard Sharpe and Uhtred of Bebbanburg have done in Cornwell’s other books. All his male characters seem to have a weakness for women.
With the historic detail and religion-bashing I normally enjoy in Cornwell’s books absent from Wildtrack and with the story set in a cheesy late-80s timeframe it feels rather more dated than timeless. I found it interesting as an obscure 80s ‘airport novel’, but wouldn’t say it’s up there with any of his other better-known works, or indeed the rather excellent Redcoat.