Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Mercenary

Review

Mercenary

by David Gaughan


A historically-based biography of an American mercenary and entrepreneur with the somewhat improbable but real name of Lee Christmas, who was active around the dawn of the 1900s, primarily in Honduras.

Lee Christmas's life story offers the author rich material to work with. He grew up in an American South gripped by poverty and with few opportunities to better himself, yet he was clearly a man of great natural talent. He was also seriously flawed. From falling asleep while driving a train drunk, or hungover, and causing a head-on collision which he narrowly survived, to exercising very poor judgement in his entrepreneurial ventures, Christmas constantly makes mistakes as well as occasionally getting things right. Christmas is billed as the man who single-handedly changed the course of history in Central America. This claim has some truth to it, but it is not the whole story. Christmas was influential in key ways in the events described in the book, but he did not act single-handedly, and the author's sources ultimately go back to Christmas himself to a great extent, so the reliability of the reports of his actions, and the extent of their influence, may be open to question. However, what is clear nevertheless is that Lee Christmas was a real life man who lived life to the full, and then some. It is amusing to note that so ordinarily reliable a source as the New York Times erroneously reported his death in action.

The biggest problem I have with the book is the writing style. It is very ordinary and seems unengaged with the characters and the events. The adjective that persists in coming to mind is 'pedestrian'. The book reads like a newspaper article, or an encyclopedia entry. The action scenes were a tiny part of the book - probably less than five percent of the whole. Lee's love life, if one can call it that (although he did marry three times) is described at a very conservative and safe distance. Lee's drinking is better described, but again lacks any immediacy. There is no real characterization as such; it is all based on describing the historical man as best Gaughan has been able to exhume him. Other reviewers have reported being unable to finish the book, and I believe that the dull writing style is the reason. 

Perhaps the comparison should be made with a history book, because the author has made a serious and commendable effort to properly research Lee Christmas's life and the events in which he was involved. The fact that alternative sources are practically impossible to come by is not the author's fault. I would suggest the book is being marketed to the wrong audience, i.e. military/adventure readers, who find virtually no military action between the covers, and while there is plenty of adventure it is described in a dull way. It would be better presented as a historical biography of good quality.

One oddity of the book (the Kindle edition) which struck me as I began reading it was the lack of a table of contents near the front. In fact the book has a table of contents, but for whatever reason it is located on the very last pages, so that one finds it when one has finished reading the story.

Recommended for history buffs of the turbulent times in Central America at the dawn of the 20th Century.


Currently Reading

Ataxia and the Ravine of Lost Dreams
by Rachel Barnard