Journal Issue Date: Dec 2017
Journal Name: December 2017 - Vol. 53, No. 12
By James H. Drescher | Deadeye Press | $17.99 | 367 pages | 2017
James H. Drescher, a Franklin lawyer who served as a Marine Corps Judge Advocate in Okinawa, Parris Island and London, has published his debut novel, a work of historical fiction centering on the turbulent world of piracy in the Caribbean in the 1720s. Although the work is fiction, Drescher has been faithful to the historical record as much as possible, and this makes the book more fascinating. Many of the named pirates, their locales, and even the ships sailed, were real. Furthermore, as Drescher states, he “strives to honor the historical record and avoid distracting stereotypes, there are no parrots, eye-patches or peg-legs.” But this historic accuracy does not inhibit the drama and adventure. It is a hard book to put down.
Being careful not to spoil the swashbuckling plot, the story centers on the trials and tribulations of a skilled navigator, the likable, ethical, young Harry Glasby of Boston (a real person), who is kidnapped by pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts (another real person and the most successful pirate who prowled the Spanish Main). Roberts commands Glasby: “You will steer my ship or you will die!”
Although Glasby never officially signed on as a member of Robert’s crew, and struggles to hang onto his integrity, he is treated as a crew member and is even brought to trial for attempting to escape or desert, depending on one’s view of his situation. This brings us to one of the more dramatic scenes of the book, as pirate Valentine Ashplant (yes, another real person with a fictitious sounding name) comes to Glasby’s defense. This trial is even more moving because it truly happened, and we are fortunate to have a detailed account of it.
Ashplant was as effective as any trained lawyer. He told the pirate court, “I hope he will repent of what he has done, but damn me, if he must die, I will die along with him.” That is true devotion to a client! Glasby’s fellow defendants were not so fortunate, but they did get to choose their manner of execution.
There are several trials in the book, both pirate trials and the trial of captured pirates by British authorities. One is left to wonder which judicial system was more fair. For instance, in the admiralty court, defendant Glasby observed: “Counsel was assigned to advise us but counsel could not address the court or cross-examine witnesses …. Rather than wait until the trial ended, as one defendant after another had been heard to testify, his verdict was announced on the spot.”
Aside from the retelling of trials, aided by Drescher’s lawyer eye, the book offers insight into pirate governance and life (where sobriety would bring suspension). The shipboard battles are particularly realistic, as well as the treatment or mistreatment of prisoners. One captured ship captain has an especially brutal end at the hands of Captain Roberts, all because he had refused to surrender. It must be kept in mind that pirates wanted to discourage resistance. Treasure, not battle, was their goal. Yet when obliged to fight, they were merciless. The reader feels the exhilaration, rage and terror when Roberts and his men engage in brave yet bloodthirsty combat and sometimes meet their bloody end. Roberts’ gory demise makes one almost feel sorry for the rogue As Glasby says: “If there is a line between glory and insanity, it is a fine line indeed.”
James Drescher’s first book is a well-polished work. He once again proves that lawyers make great novelists, for lawyers know how to present a compelling and believable story forged from fact. This Drescher ably does for the reader. As has been said of other fine historical fiction, this may not be exactly how it happened, but it should have been.
RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and since 1999 has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal.