A middle-aged antihero takes a young apprentice under his wing. Together, they work in secret, building up huge stocks of illicit materials. Right under the noses of the respectable people of their neighbourhood, they covertly run a criminal operation of international reach. When others cross them — be they competitors or officers of the law — they meet a tragic and often accidental end. Eventually, our heroes find themselves with more money than they can safely use and find themselves in the clutches of forces much more powerful than their own, as events descend inexorably to a tragic conclusion.
It could be the plot of Breaking Bad, but it’s also the storyline of Moonfleet, a novel published back in 1898.
As a boys’ own adventure, it might give modern day school governors pause for thought when they come to draw up their lists of banned books.
The heroes are smugglers, brazen and proud of their trade (although curiously, only their opponents call them ‘smugglers’. The gang themselves always say they are ‘Contrabandiers’). They trade in booze and deal out death with abandon. People are shot, branded and enslaved. Victims beg on their knees for their lives. The story even opens with the death of a fifteen-year-old boy.
Worst of all, the villains are the officers of the law, who are always held up to be evil through and through, especially the local magistrate Mr. Maskew:
He had a thin face with a sharp nose that looked as if it would peck you, and grey eyes that could pierce a millstone if there was a guinea on the far side of it … he preferred his neighbours’ enmity to their goodwill, and went about to make it more bitter by getting himself posted for magistrate, and giving out that he would put down the contraband thereabouts.
The novel turns the accepted view of the Victorians as po-faced, law-abiding puritans on its head. Moonfleet was a massive success at the end of the nineteenth century and it remains popular today. Set 150 years in the past when it first appeared, Moonfleet is a rollicking read with daring adventure at every turn, set in the familiar countryside of the South-West of England.
In one respect it is very dated, which is the ending. Without giving anything away, it is one of those predictable Dickensian conclusions based on coincidence and absurd good fortune. However, to get there, Falkner takes his heroes to hell and back. As is often the case, the journey is more interesting than the destination.
I came across the novel whilst on holiday on the Isle of Wight (where I grew up). This summer, we visited Carisbrooke Castle, whose well and donkeys play a key part in the action. Donkeys were working the wheel to draw up the water 250 years ago and they are still at it today, although now the pampered beasts only work as much as they like (which means about half a minute from our experience). Nevertheless, it’s a cool fact that we can still see events from this novel in action, although it’s no longer required to cast someone to their doom as part of your visit.