Into the rigging, readers! The title and cleared-for-action dust jacket of S. Thomas Russell’s “Take, Burn or Destroy” pretty much signals a good nautical actioner in the tradition of C.S. Forster, Patrick O’Brien and Maine’s own James L. Nelson. This is the third in “The Charles Hayden Series,” preceded by “Under Enemy Colors” and “A Battle Won.” It is the first I have reviewed, and when it comes to 18th-century naval life and warfare, Russell is at the top of his game — at least in part.

The year is 1794 and Capt. Charles Hayden, a rather nuanced character, half-British, half-French, has been ordered to take the elderly frigate HMS Themis to meet an English spy off the French coast of Le Havre. As the reader will correctly anticipate this will be no simple cruise — there will be action, disasters, intrigue and blood. Of course, this is exactly what the genre calls for, and it is no easy task to accurately portray Royal Navy life, attitudes and protocol.

Society was rigidly class-oriented and the Royal Navy was what every historical fan knows as the most sharply etched part of the English social system. The Navy was the oak wall, the line of defense, manned by what most English subjects considered the dregs of society, under the command of unsympathetic, professional gentleman. And so is Capt. Charles Hayden, like his forerunners Hornblower, Aubrey or Biddlecomb, a fighting commander. Facing the French at the height of the revolutionary terror, life in crews of the opposing navy was lax almost to the point of ruin. Yet the French officer corps, mostly holdovers from Royalist times, tried to maintain some order. What generally remained intact was the sense of civility and military honor between officers of opposing nations. French crews, increasingly expressed their rights as citizens over that as sailors. Such revolutionary thoughts were creeping into British crews, though fear of the mob and guillotine, along with traditional Royal Navy enforcements generally outweighed such ideas. Nor can one discount patriotism and the rights of the Englishmen.

Russell manages some the neatest chase, shipwreck and survival writing I know as Hayden and his officers find themselves and their captors in mutual battle against the sea and the rocks of coastal France: the frigate Les Droits de L’homme is plastered to the headland and breaking up, as men struggle to escape:

“Another sea threw itself upon them, slanting the raft impossibly up, then casting deluge upon them. Up went the raft until it was nearly vertical, Hayden holding on with every bit of reserve he could manage, feeling his numb fingers beginning to slip-and then the raft dug its edge in so that Hayden was submerged to his waist, and then went over, so that he was entirely under green water.”

To my mind this is good action writing and it is carried at a good pace throughout the high seas portions of the narrative. Unfortunately the writing is not sustained in the “romantic” or Portside chapters of Take, Burn or Destroy. The author or his publisher seems to want to attract a female audience and so includes a literary doldrum that might be called; Propose, Swoon or Withdraw. It is a lifeless romance with cardboard character and hopeless dialogue:

“For a moment she appeared to be at a loss, and then she merely gestured to herself: ‘…in this manner. I really cannot. I am just …’ But she could not finish for tears began to flow again and did so for several more minutes. ‘I am just so unhappy. I can hardly bear it, Lizzie … And I do not know why.’ “

The reader can only guess why — probably because she is being forced to spew bad dialogue. As for Hayden, better his head be swept away by a cannon ball. If the author has a serious concern for his creations, and Hayden does have dimension, he at least ought to find a flesh and blood, believable love interest, a Lady Hamilton to Hayden’s Admiral Nelson. Then we might have literary equilibrium, not excitement followed by emptiness. 

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland.