The Bloody Black Flag by Steve Goble is a debut novel aboard a pirate ship in 1722 and the first in the new Spider John Mysteries series.
The publisher touts Steve Goble’s debut novel, The Bloody Black Flag, as “Agatha Christie meets Patrick O’Brian,” and it couldn’t have been a more apt description. The book felt a lot like Murder on the Orient Express but on a pirate ship traveling the high seas between the American colonies and Jamaica.
It begins with Spider John Rush and his friend Ezra fleeing from the law, straight to the waiting arms of Addison, a pirate recruiter for a ship called Plymouth Dream. While the two of them dream of a settled life on shore, circumstances have required them to become pirates once again. They figure a risky pirate’s life on this one last voyage is better than hanging now for the current crime they stand accused of. Unfortunately, Plymouth Dream’s captain, William Barlow, is more of a nightmare, with rules that are harsher than most and an itchy trigger finger to boot.
But the real mystery begins when Ezra turns up dead—mysteriously murdered in the night—and an object of great value to Barlow turns up missing. Things get pretty tense as Spider, the newest pirate to join, finds reason to suspect nearly everyone on the ship, and Barlow becomes even more of a loose cannon as he tries to locate his missing object.
“What is it you seek?” Cooper, one of the sail hands and a man with three daughters in England, had asked the questions. Spider closed his eyes, and winced at the crack of thunder. He opened his eyes in time to see the man fall dead to the deck, while Barlow tossed aside his now empty weapon and drew another from his belt. Spider said a silent prayer, in hopes that no one else would be so foolish.
There’s danger on the high seas for a pirate, that’s for sure, and that adds an interesting twist to Spider’s quest for his friend’s murderer. When they engage in battle with another pirate ship, Spider wonders if the man he seeks is dead or not as one of the more exciting scenes unfolds:
It seemed the tumult would never end, and Spider watched man after man fall dead while the deck lurched maniacally under his feet. A frightened chicken flapped wildly and fell from the larboard rail, and the target vessel must had had swine aboard, because Spider could hear the animals grunting in fear below.
The fight raged on, with smoke and ripped sails and blood flying, and all the anger Spider had tried to conceal since Ezra’s death slowly swelled up in him, until he swung his rusty blade with what felt like demonic force, and wished every man he hacked was his friend’s killer. Spider John had fought many times before, but had never slaughtered like this. He both hated it, and found it freeing.
This murder is obviously very personal to Spider, and though the battle scenes and the search for the captain’s missing object lend an extra sense of tension to the plot, I couldn’t help but feel that the central mystery lacked too many clues, and Spider spent too much time ruminating over a smoke in the dark. I also wonder how the author is going to sustain a series out of a pirate solving mysteries aboard various pirate ships, so I certainly hope he’s got more tricks up his sleeve after this first novel.
It’s certainly a fun start to a new series, and I do look forward to seeing what the author plans next for Spider John—a most likable character—and his little band of ruffians. But I’m sincerely hoping Spider’s in for more than a murder on a pirate ship. He deserves grander adventures.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.