WE FIRST met the unreformed chancer James Keane in Iain Gale’s last novel, and he’s still leading his band of criminals turned loyal servants of the future Duke of Wellington into battle against the King’s enemies.
Heron Books, £16.99
Although Keane’s company prefer to be called “exploring officers”, they are actually spies. This time they are joined by a disgraced medical student who left Edinburgh University in a hurry when discovered stealing corpses. His skills turn out to be useful.
Their mission in Portugal is to “listen for the sound of the French”. Napoleon has just been successful in Austria and is finally free to devote his attentions to ousting the British from the Iberian peninsula.
Keane’s task is to get advance notice of their invasion plans. His mission is made more interesting by the fact that this is the first campaign since the invention of telegraphic communication and there is now the option of sending false signals. In addition to avoiding capture by the French, his men have to avoid or, if possible, make friends with the mushrooming numbers of Spanish guerrillas.
The array of men in uniform is complex, and includes Portuguese, Spanish, red-coated Swiss helping the French, as well as the main antagonists. To add to the mix, Keane is Irish.
Wellington knows that his task is being undermined by the presence in his command of an enemy spy and Keane is entrusted with the task of identifying the culprit. Knowing what information has been passed on by the spy is complicated by the beginnings of a trend that would soon become familiar. Back in Blighty, the Morning Chronicle has been publishing details of the size and dispositions of the British army in Portugal. When the main suspect apparently dies in an explosion, Keane has to look elsewhere.
The fictional story is strengthened by insights into the miseries of war. Wellington is pursuing a scorched earth policy which alienates the local peasants. He doesn’t seem to understand why they do not care who wins as long as they can be left at peace to grow their crops and feed their families. Keane has a shrewder insight into what creates loyalty. He dislikes his instructions to cause further destruction in the countryside and watches in horror as the town of Ciudad goes up in flames.
This book also continues the mysteries surrounding Keane’s personal life, not least his attempt to find out who his father was. His patron Wellington, however, knows that he is depending on a marginal character. “You’re a rogue, Keane. Quite brilliant but a rogue all the same.”
The finale leaves Keane in a fit state to bail out his commander-in-chief in the next volume. The Napoleonic Wars have a bit to go yet. We’ve only reached 1810.