Nautical Fiction - the Willam Bentley novels

The Sea Officer William Bentley novels are gritty, noir-inspired sea adventures whose unrelenting realism plumbs the depths of shipboard life in the Age of Sail. Here, Jan Needle speaks about the impetus that drives his novels:

Behind the Myths: Why I Write Nautical Fiction

by Jan Needle

I started reading nautical fiction at an early age for all the usual romantic reasons: clean- cut midshipmen, who by bravery and brilliance rose up the ladder of promotion to the very top, thwarting enemies and fate until their courage and wisdom enriched their men, their country, and indeed the world. It was marvelous, really - and I believed it all. My father was a deckhand on Fleet Auxiliary ships when I was born in Portsmouth during World War II, and my Uncle Ron a decorated navy hero. The sea and boats became my overwhelming passions.

But as I grew, perceptions changed. The truth, I learned, was deeply complex. Uncle Ron was a hero certainly - but he was merely a stoker, third class. When the war was over he was out. That's it, mister. Find a job. And his brother, my Uncle Les, was a conscientious objector, but Ron insisted Les was the braver man by far. My father and uncles also held all officers in deep contempt, although some, quite clearly, were brave, compassionate, extraordinary. My problem with the "Heroic Age of Sail," I realised, was not that the officers were all seen as noble heroes, and that the men were hardly seen at all, but that, because of the romantic gloss, none of them was truly believable. As to the women characters - well, to put it at its mildest, they were only well-rounded in one sense.

What I am trying to do in my books is to get behind this myth, to show an age of desperate, ruthless struggle. In the eighteenth century, the British Navy carved out, with blood and violence, a huge portion of the world. The losses were enormous - but not from warfare, mainly. Firstly came disease, then accident: the peril of the sea. And life on land was not much better. My heroine, Deb Tomelty, a hatter girl, runs incautiously away with her friend because she needs excitement. Within months her friend is dead, and Deb is a whore. It happened; it happened all the time. Not all the men were heroes, not all the maids were captivating ladies, not all the dreams of Portsmouth boys turn out to be quite true. The romance is not dead for me, though - it exists in the hard, bitter lives of my characters as I follow them to see where they will lead. And I remember my uncles Ron and Les, and my father. Surely heroes, too?

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A Fine Boy for Killing

Sample chapter

McBooks Press, New York, 2002

Under sealed orders for an arduous voyage, Captain Daniel Smith must forge an efficient crew from the ragged group-the old, the weak, criminals and young boys-he commands. Thanks to his own evil reputation and wretched wartime conditions, only the most desperate will join his ship Welfare. To make up the numbers, he must resort to press gangs. Using trickery and kidnapping, Swift's young nephew, William Bentley, brings in the last two members of the company; farmer's boy Thomas Fox and smuggler Jesse Broad find themselves on board a ship policed by the cane and cat. As the voyage wears on, the food becomes rotten, the water foul, the men weakened by disease and punishment. Inevitably, talk below deck turns to mutiny. Relentlessly building, A Fine Boy for Killing is a fascinating picture of life on board a naval frigate-the first in a remarkable new series of historical naval adventures from Jan Needle.

From Publishers Weekly

A promising first installment in a series of historical sea adventures by British writer Needle introduces readers to 14-year-old officer William Bentley and life aboard the ill-fated frigate Welfare during the Napoleonic Wars. The ship is helmed by Daniel Swift, a notoriously ruthless captain who instructs young BentleyDhis nephew and favoriteDin the best ways to fill the ship's complement of sailors. Forced pressing into service is illegal, but in an attempt to please his uncle, Bentley adds two crewmen through trickery and kidnapping; a young farm boy named Thomas Fox and a smuggler named Jesse Broad. Broad and Fox form a relationship that parallels Swift and Bentley's as Broad assumes a quiet role of leadership among the increasingly unhappy crew. The abusive atmosphere aboard the Welfare is thick and immediate, as is the struggle for power over the ship. Swift exerts his power strategically and sadistically, while Bentley, whose youth makes his attempts at discipline ineffectual, tries to justify his uncle's increasingly cruel actions. Floggings occur daily for the slightest offenses, and living quarters are squalid. When the inevitable mutiny occurs, it is a spontaneous eruption, liberating the crew from royal command but leaving them vulnerable to anarchic elements within their ranks. Bentley, the only officer left on board, bears witness to the mutiny's aftermath, completing a personal transformation that makes the book a bildungsroman as well as a sea story. Such tales can easily fall prey to convention, but in Needle's hands the Welfare comes alive with rich, compelling characters and vivid imagery. There are no white knights here and no one-dimensional villains; as much as one hates Swift, he is a refreshingly unpredictable character in an invigorating story. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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The Wicked Trade

Sample chapter

McBooks Press, New York, 2003

Young William Bentley, survivor of the bloody Welfare mutiny, reluctantly resumes his Naval career as an officer on the press tender Biter. The Impress Service is the most reviled part of the Navy-carrying on the legal kidnapping of seamen to fill His Majesty's war-strapped ships. William's earlier experiences have stripped away his last traces of innocence, but his service in the London River-surrounded by corruption and greed-teaches him new lessons about the darker side of city life. When the Biter is reassigned to combat the "wicked trade" of smuggling, William is caught up in the investigation of the murder of two Customs officers.

From Publishers Weekly

The title refers to smuggling operations on England's coast during the 18th century, when customs men and smugglers battled over piles of booty. Now young midshipman William Bentley of the Royal Navy is up to his cutlass in plots, treachery and murder in the second volume (following last year's A Fine Boy for Killing) of Needle's series about the adventures of this intrepid naval officer. After several years ashore, hunger forces Bentley to return to the service, although he hates the navy and the sea life. He is not surprised, therefore, to be posted to an impress ship, a drab scow charged with forcibly recruiting sailors, to fill the king's warships with seamen in the current war with France. Bentley and his fellow midshipman friend, Sam Holt, are soon drawn into a complicated conspiracy after two customs men are brutally murdered by a well-organized smuggling gang. Greed, corruption and betrayal reach high levels in the navy and the government, and the two midshipmen soon are way over their heads in a cesspool of savagery and duplicity. This is an entertaining but gruesome swashbuckler, albeit without the glory of a Hornblower or the class of a Ramage. Needle grimly and accurately portrays naval existence and the life of the poor as dirty, cruel and ruthless scenes of young whores having their teeth pulled out to make impromptu dentures for the wealthy are particularly graphic, as is the brutish treatment of women overall. Expectedly, Needle's conclusion is vague and unfulfilling, leaving scores of loose ends to be tidied up in the next book in the series. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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The Spithead Nymph

McBooks Press, New York, 2004

The William Bentley novels are gritty, noir-inspired sea adventures that plumb the depths of shipboard life in the Age of Sail. In this third novel of the series, Needle gives readers an unflinching look at the cruelty of slavery. The novel explores the repercussions of this degrading institution for all members of society: those who traffic in human lives, those who try to stop it, and those who stand by and simply watch the depravity unfold. Midshipman William Bentley awaits trial on charges of treason - until he is offered the chance to avoid prison by serving as first lieutenant to Richard Kaye, now captain of Will's old ship Biter. Will accepts and begins a harrowing journey to Jamaica, unaware that the woman he loves has been sold as an indentured servant to a depraved Jamaican planter. The brutality of Will's shipboard companions further hardens him to navy life, but nothing can prepare him for the inhumanity that fuels the slave trade. If you prefer the unvarnished truth over gold-plated history, then hang on to your seat and take a hellride with Will Bentley to a Caribbean that is anything but friendly.

undertaker's wind cover

Undertaker's Wind

Broadsides Press, 2006

Jan Needle's fourth Sea Officer William Bentley naval adventure finds the young lieutenant in the Bahamas. With the Biter sunk beneath the Caribbean waves, along with Captain "Slack Dickie" Kaye's corrupted dream of riches, Will Bentley is forced inexorably deeper into the brutal and rapacious world of Jamaican politics. Although he brilliantly cuts out a mysterious French brig from a secret bay, his hopes of recovering his lost honour with a triumphant return to Port Royal are blighted by the news that Deb Tomelty, his beloved "Spithead Nymph," has been held responsible for the death of a leading planter - and that William must help to hunt her to her death!