When U.S. Navy Lieutenant Everett Townsend sets out from the Dry Tortugas on a 70-mile sea journey to Key West in October 1865, his routine supply mission sails right into a hurricane that is as dangerous as it is disorientating. The storm is an apt metaphor for Townsend’s journey in Robin Lloyd’s latest work of historical fiction, “Hidden Cargo,” as Townsend pursues wrongdoers, navigates ethical dilemmas and addresses critical issues in his personal life, all in the tumultuous aftermath of the Civil War.

This is the second Civil War era book by Lloyd, a part-time Maine resident who sprinkles references to the Pine Tree state throughout the book, including a shipmate who is “a Penobscot River sailor from Maine.” It’s also the second in which Townsend is the protagonist; he previously appeared in Lloyd’s novel, “Harbor of Spies.”

Blown off course during the hurricane – Townsend had set sail against the advice of his men and against his own better judgment – the ship is forced aground on a remote island off the coast of Key West. Lloyd’s own experience sailing the Caribbean powers his vivid portrayal of the storm in which “a solid black cloud rose up into the eastern sky and dropped on top of them with a sudden fury, almost instantly turning day into night,” while “winds burst onto the ship with a howling roar and a deluge of water, rain, and spray.”

While battling the wind and seas to avoid disaster, Townsend sees another ship in the distance. That ship has also run aground, and as Townsend watches, four sailors abandon it. After the storm subsides, Townsend and his crew investigate the other wreck and discover 12 formerly enslaved men were imprisoned below deck with no way of escaping; they were left to die. One of the 12 survives just long enough to explain that they had been kidnapped to be sold in Cuba, where slavery in 1865 was still legal.

Townsend reports the crime upon landing in Key West but is greeted with indifference. An official suggests that the four sailors should not be apprehended but instead followed, in the hopes they will lead to larger elements of the criminal enterprise, including people still loyal to the Confederacy. Townsend struggles with the notion of letting guilty men go free in the hopes of a larger prize. This will not be the last time he is confronted with the question of whether the ends justify the means.

Although the Civil War ended several months before the events in “Hidden Cargo” occur, the issues that underlay it are far from settled. Some in the South are at best ambivalent on the issue of slavery, and many have refused to accept the outcome of the war. Lloyd adeptly describes the atmosphere of disruption and disequilibrium in which families have been uprooted, property extensively damaged and formerly enslaved people are struggling to adjust to their new circumstances. While now “free” in a technical legal sense, the freedmen (and women) still face prejudice, institutional racism and even murder.


When Townsend is assigned to Cuba to investigate the death of an American sailor, he reconnects with his on-and-off-again sweetheart Emma – a relationship that is repeatedly upset by Townsend’s social blunders. Unfortunately, her character is less developed than Townsend’s and at times it seems as though she is merely a catalyst to advance the larger plot.

As Townsend’s investigation intensifies, he learns that Emma has been arrested for alleged complicity in the movement seeking to free Cuba from Spanish rule. Townsend secures her release by telling Spanish officials that he and Emma are engaged – which they are not – and it would be improper to detain the betrothed of an American official. Townsend also promises to provide information to Spanish officials in Cuba, making him a double agent and once again putting him in an ends-versus-means dilemma.

More morally dubious waters await Townsend when he confronts the leader of the men responsible for the deaths of the 12 kidnapped men. Although Townsend is convinced the sailors are guilty, their leader seems to have a compelling response to each of Townsend’s allegations. A flummoxed Townsend admits to himself that he will not prevail in seeking justice for the deaths because he cannot prove their guilt.

Later, Townsend stumbles upon a scheme to have the four sailors arrested by planting incriminating evidence of an unrelated crime on their ship, a crime they did not commit, and then reporting them to Spanish authorities. Townsend again wrestles with the dilemma of whether the end justifies the means. On the one hand, these are evil men who have committed a heinous crime. On the other, is it right for them to be imprisoned and possibly condemned to die for a crime they didn’t commit?

“Hidden Cargo” is an energetic, engaging tale. The plot is broad in scope but never meandering and the portrayal of Townsend, as a man who stumbles both personally and professionally, is convincing. Lloyd keenly captures the post-Civil War milieu in Key West as well as the growing unrest in Cuba with Spanish rule. In one section, he paints a heartbreakingly vivid portrait of an auction in which family members, including young children, are sold into slavery. The event seems to unfold in painfully riveting high-definition slow motion.

As “Hidden Cargo” ends, Townsend is in Havana pondering his fate, which is “yet to be revealed.” Readers are left to wonder what adventures await Townsend – and whether Lloyd will perhaps unveil them in a forthcoming novel.

Dave Canarie is an attorney from South Portland and a faculty member at USM.

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