"As in life, so in a game of hazard, skill will make something of the worst of throws."
Treasure Island. Heard of it? Of course you have. Read it? Quite possibly. But have you read Moonfleet? Possibly not. And that's a damn shame.
The story revolves around John Trenchard, an orphan living in the village of Moonfleet on the South Coast of England. John's curiosity and boyish longing for adventure soon mean that he becomes embroiled with the local gang of smugglers. The gang is led by Elzevir Block, the gruff ox of a landlord of The Mohune Arms (nicknamed The Why Not?)
Not to give too much away, but Trenchard and Block soon find themselves on the run from the authorities. And whilst they're being hunted, they decide to go looking for the lost diamond of John "Blackbeard" Mohune. Risky? Most definitely. Will they make it back to Moonfleet? And will they return as rich men?
Why read it?
1. As an adventure story, you can't go far wrong with this one. J. Meade Falkner throws everything at it. We're talking smuggling, shipwrecks, diamonds, secret codes, manhunts, survival in the elements, storms, caves, long lost love and disguises. And backgammon.
2. For a book written in 1898, the slightly archaic language is not a barrier to the story. Sure there are a few words and phrases I had to look up (just what is a lee shore anyway?) but mostly it's pretty accessible. In fact, I'd say the language is FAR easier for kids to navigate than the slightly earlier Treasure Island.
3. Falkner writes some of the best passages of suspense I can remember reading in a while. In a scene where Elzevir is threatening to shoot the magistrate Maskew, the tension is drawn out masterfully for several pages.
"Maskew knew it too, for he made his last appeal, using such passionate words as I cannot now relate, and wriggling with his body as if to get his hands from behind his back and hold them up in supplication. He offered money; a thousand, five thousand, ten thousand pounds to be set free; he would give back the Why Not?; he would leave Moonfleet; and all the while the sweat ran down his furrowed face, and at last his voice was choked with sobs, for he was crying for his life in craven fear."
Yet more reasons to read it
4. Falkner uses parallels and motifs throughout the book, which tie things together nicely. The Y of the Mohune arms, candles, the psalms which lead them to the treasure, enclosed spaces, the backwash of the pebbles on the beach. He keeps coming back to these motifs and they work really well to link everything together.
5. John Trenchard himself is a little bit on the bland side, but Elzevir Block is a great character, and it's a shame he's not more widely known. He's the strong, taciturn type, and you seriously wouldn't mess with him. But he's also very loyal, resourceful, smart and oddly sensitive. I loved him.
6. The ending is brilliant. I can't tell you why without giving anything away, but it is really suspenseful. It's also one of those endings which manages to be both expected and unexpected.
7. The sense of place is great. The descriptions of the coast, the moors and the weather all really make you feel as though you are there in the thick of the action.
What's not so great?
1. As with most adventure stories of this era, there's barely a woman to be seen. John's aunt is there as the pious spinster who kicks him out for his 'wicked ways'. And there's Grace, John's love interest. But she doesn't get much of a character/part really, beyond being a figure of John's longing.
2. It does feel like the book gets a little bit lost in the middle, and at times feels like it doesn't know what it wants to be. But you forgive it, because overall it's just about adventure and who cares?
Moonfleet wasn't published in the US until 1951. It was promptly made into a disastrous film starring Stewart Granger.
Moonfleet is based on East Fleet in Dorset, near Chesil Beach. 'The Snout' headland in the book is Portland Bill. The Mohunes were a real family - Maximillion Mohune built Fleet House in 1603 - it's now the Moonfleet Manor Hotel.
J. Meade Falkner only published three books. He apparently wrote a fourth, and then left the manuscript on a train. Bummer.
Brilliantly written adventure story with great action and likeable characters. I'll definitely be checking out Falkner's other books. The ones that actually got published.