Sharpe’s Devil: Chile, 1820
© 1992 Bernard Cornwell
Twelve years ago, Cyberkitten introduced me to Richard Sharpe, and for the next two years I happily followed him through India, Iberia, and France. These days I am forced to look for books like the Sharpe’s series, and though many are close none have Cornwell’s pleasing mix of action, comedy, suspense, and solid characterization. I was therefore happily surprised to discover I’d missed a Sharpe book during my initial run, and now have the opportunity to march with the rifleman again. This time, Sharpe is in the New World — hunting for an old Spanish friend, who has gone mysteriously missing while Chile struggles to break free of the dons’ dominion. Sharpe’s Devil marks the end to the series, and while Sharpe is definitely not at the height of his powers here, Cornwell delivers an exciting tale of espionage and action with an unforgettable supporting character.
The Napoleonic wars are over, and Sharpe is a soldier no more. He’s spent the last five years living as a farmer in France with a beautiful fille and a litter of children, trying to get along with neighbors who are not at all happy with the fact that an English soldier has taken up residence there. An old friend has gone missing in Chile, and his distraught wife has offered Sharpe and Harper a pile of money to go find him. Amid much teasing (Harper has been living a bit over-healthily in peacetime, shall we say?) the two set out, and after paying their respects to the imprisoned Bonaparte at St. Helena, begin their quest. That small gesture of respect to Bonaparte, however, compromises Sharpe’s mission in ways he won’t realize until too late. Chile is corrupt and wickedly treacherous, and instead of being treated like honored guests, Sharpe and Harper soon find themselves in irons, betrayed by the local British authorities and the Spanish alike. Although this would have happened regardless, Sharpe definitely made matters worse for himself by agreeing to accept a small token from Napoleon to deliver to an ‘admirer’ in Chile by way of the American embassy: I suspect most readers were screaming at Sharpe to be cautious, but after so many years removed from battle and the corruption of power-plays, perhaps his sword has gotten a bit rusty.
Sharpe’s Devil has a setting unlike anything else in the Sharpe’s series: a dangerous ocean filled with privateers and icebergs, and the varied, dangerous landscape of Chile itself, with its Indian population still actively resisting the Spanish and distant volcanoes belching smoke. In due time, Sharpe will encounter the leader of Chile’s rebellion, an Scottish lord ejected from Parliament who now leads the desperate fight against the dons with nothing but wits, cheek, and a lot of bravado. He’s an absolute riot to read, and I was delighted to learn he was a real person, one who had an unbelievable career and may have inspired C.S. Forester to write the Horatio Hornblower series. He’s such a character, in fact, that it’s him and not Sharpe who drives the military action of the last half, attacking the Spanish with outrageous schemes and bringing Sharpe along for the ride — though the rifleman does have a flash of cunning himself that helps. There are few people who could out-shine Sharpe, but Cornwell has found one in history and brought him to life again.
It was a great joy to return to this series and see Sharpe in action yet again, even if he was an older farmer who was plainly tired of fighting at this point. The setting, the story of rebellion and treachery, and the supporting characters more than made up for Sharpe’s obvious disinterest in the fight.