Bombay, 1856: Lieutenant Arthur Fenris is living by the edge of his wits, alone, near penniless and without a place. He is also not what he seems – Fenris died in an Indian skirmish, his identity stolen by Jack Lark, an adventurer imposter, risen from the poorest stews of London who, almost despite himself, has discovered a true purpose and talent in his life – Lark is made to be an officer. He is a natural leader of men, brave but not foolhardy, strategic and clever, and, despite all that has happened to him, constant in his loyalty to Queen and country. But when he is in danger of reaching despair, scrapping for survival in Bombay, fortune throws out a helping hand.
Having befriended a young, frightened and fresh off the boat officer, Lieutenant Knightly, Lark attracts the attention of Major Ballard, the army’s chief intelligence officer who, Lark is confident, would be able to sniff out any imposter. But far from being a threat, Ballard offers Lark – or Fenris – a post. The British Indian army is facing a new threat – the Shah of Persia, who is now being supported by the Russians, Britain’s great 19th-century enemy. A military campaign on Persian shores is imminent. But Ballard knows there is a well-placed spy in the camp. He needs Lark to seek out and kill the spy before hundreds of soldiers are slaughtered, no doubt understanding that one imposter will be well gifted to uncover another. Ballard, though, has a nickname – the Devil – and this devil is the only thing standing between Lark and ruin.
The Devil’s Assassin is the third Jack Lark adventure and I expected much from it. Its predecessor The Maharajah’s General is an absolute delight – combining the perfect mix of boy’s own adventure, romance, exotic landscapes and foreign courts as well as mystery and intrigue. But instead of trying to compete with this, Paul Fraser Collard does something rather different with The Devil’s Assassin. The novel is just as exciting, if not more so in places, and the locations are just as exotic and well-visualised, but everything has got that little bit darker. There is ‘romance’ but Jack’s relationship with Sarah Draper, a senior officer’s wife, is not sentimental. It has much more to do with trying to find light amongst the darkness of war, a distraction from the constant shadow of death waiting around the next corner.
Jack Lark himself is not the man he was. He’s grown and matured. His difficult memories from his youth in London now have rival memories – his experiences in the Crimean War and India which have altered him. He still has his courage and leadership prowess but he knows the true meaning of fear. He has the same old disrespect for the young British public schoolboys who come out to lead men to their deaths with no understanding or preparation for combat but now he has sympathy for them. He takes Knightly under his wing in a truly touching way. Lark’s relationship with his fellow officers and with the troops, Indian or British, is much more developed here. There is a ring of truth to it. And that makes other officers more interesting – notably Ballard and Knightly. It is very difficult not to take Knightly to heart.
As for the action itself, the second half of The Devil’s Assassin was for me a complete eye-opener about mid 19th-century warfare. This little-known conflict in Persia is presented here in all its absolute horror and violence. It is thoroughly thrilling and relentless – battles go on for many hours, taking men to the very limit of their physical endurance. We are shown all aspects of war – light and heavy cavalry, infantry, artillery – and it is as fascinating as it is harrowing.
The novel never stops being a thrilling adventure – the spy mystery at its heart is completely satisfying – but there is also much here to do with social and military history. The treatment of Indian soldiers within the ranks is a growing theme, which may reach ahead in a future novel now that the Mutiny looms so close. I would dearly love to read about that. Paul Fraser Collard has dug deeper into the state of the mid 19th-century British army, with its weaponry, its privileged inexperienced officers as well as the camaraderie between the troops themselves, many of whom enlisted to escape enormous hardship at home. Women inevitably get less of a look in but the character of Sarah Draper is an interesting one. She has an air of independence about her as she goes about her business in these most dangerous of places. Perhaps Jack has met his match?
The Devil’s Assassin is a wonderful novel. It’s a lot of fun to read, almost deceptively so because it also gave me a great deal to think about. This isn’t a period of history I normally read about but Paul Fraser Collard is no ordinary writer – I love the way that he brings this period of British military and imperial history to life, in all its colour, aggression, inequality, violence and vitality. The Devil’s Assassin is a breathless, memorable read and I recommend it completely.