Sea Lord is the second of Cornwell’s contemporary nautical thrillers, first published in the UK in 1989. It has some similarities to the previous book Wildtrack, and indeed shares a couple of minor characters, but none of his nautical thrillers are part of a series – they all have different main characters. Sea Lord tells the story of John Rossendale who is the penniless last Earl of Stowey, member of a long line of faded aristocracy, who would rather be sailing around in his boat Sunflower than having to deal with any of his family’s woes.
Once accused of stealing a Van Gogh worth millions from his ancestral home, but never arrested for the crime due to lack of evidence, years later Rossendale is forced onto dry land by the death of his estranged mother. We are quickly introduced to his two sisters – Elizabeth a bitter and angry woman who is certain he stole the painting and thus robbed the family of the only means to maintain their status, the other a younger sibling Georgina with a broken mind who lives in a care home. Rossendale’s older brother committed suicide some years previously leaving him as head of the household and likely to inherit the missing painting despite his embittered mother leaving it in her will to his sister Elizabeth.
It’s soon clear that Rossendale’s life is in danger. He is attacked by some shady characters at George Cullen’s boatyard which still shows the damage from a break-in by Wildtrack‘s Nick Sandman, and Sunflower is badly damaged. He is rescued by his old pal Charlie who also helps him fix his boat and sends him back out to see with a hearty slap on the back.
The sexy Jennifer Pallavicini, daughter of a millionaire who wants to buy the Van Gogh from Rossendale tracks him down in the Azores and tells him that his mad sister Georgina needs his help. He is forced back home to figure out whether Elizabeth’s plan to take Georgina out of care and look after her herself is just a way of getting hold of the money that’s held in trust for her. Jennifer is fairly typical in a long line of Cornwell female lead characters who at first seem unobtainable by the hero but soon swoon into his arms and end up in bed with him. In turn the hero usually places the woman high up on a pedestal and will do anything to protect her honour or right any wrongs put her way.
Another attempt on Rossendale’s life ends up with the Sunflower set ablaze and sunk, Jennifer severely burned and close to death, and Rossendale singed but largely unhurt bent on revenge on whoever harmed Jennifer and wrecked his boat. The section of the book dedicated to the gas explosion, escape from the fire and subsequent rescue really stands out, and Sea Lord in general is a much more entertaining read thanWildtrack.
The mystery over who is out to get Rossendale and benefit from the recovery of the missing Van Gogh is well constructed with a red herring or two along the way, but I wasn’t so easily fooled and had the dots connected more or less about a third of the way through it. So while the ending, centering on a blinking buoy in the fog, was exciting it didn’t come as a great surprise when the true enemy was finally revealed.
Another character from Wildtrack reused in this tale is Inspector Harry Abbot who wants to solve the case of the missing painting but also catch those to blame for Jennifer’s injuries and the attempted murder of Rossendale. Much of the book is based in the waters around the south coast of England and the Channel Islands and there’s another helping of sea-fairing technical stuff to try and understand. It’s important for the reader to understand how a Decca system works and Cornwell does a good job of providing a brief earlier in the book before he needs to the system to explain the finale – which has Rossendale following waypoints in the thick fog off the coast of France.
Sea Lord is a very enjoyable book that moves along at a spritely pace toward a satisfyingly action-packed conclusion. My only gripe about the book is that the copy I had contained about seven typos, the worst of which was spelling his sister’s name Georgiana.