It has been 15 years since the last Richard Sharpe novel, and it’s a pleasure to report that fiction’s most famous Rifleman is still thriving, miraculous as that may seem after his long and suicidally dangerous career. Sharpe, a foundling child from the East End of London, brings street fighting skills to the business of soldiering. He has risen slowly and painfully through the ranks, campaigning in India during the 1790s and in Spain during the Peninsular war. At the start of this book, he has just saved the day at Waterloo with a typical combination of tactical skill, reckless courage and unorthodox thinking (in this case shooting the Prince of Orange, a British ally but a disastrous general).
Sharpe’s Assassin is the 22nd novel in this long-running series, which was already a success before its fortunes were boosted even further by Sean Bean and ITV. In the immediate aftermath of Waterloo, Wellington unleashes Sharpe on a desperate mission to destroy La Fraternité, a band of fanatical Bonapartists whose goal is to assassinate as many Allied leaders as possible.
He is now a colonel, albeit one with scars of flogging on his back, a souvenir of his previous life as a private soldier. In short order, he seizes a heavily defended citadel with a handful of men, releases a vital prisoner and sneaks into hostile Paris before the Allied armies reach the city. After this appetiser, the real fun begins. It culminates in a full-blown battle with a crack French battalion which Napoleon called his ‘devils’, led by le Monstre, the French equivalent of Sharpe.
Patrick O’Brian, the author of the Aubrey-Maturin novels set at sea in much the same period, is said to have commented that the Sharpe series had ‘too much plot, not enough lifestyle’. It’s fair to say that Bernard Cornwell is more interested in telling a good story than in developing a densely textured historical setting. It’s not that he doesn’t know his stuff, particularly where military history is concerned, but he’s intentionally sparing with his use of detail and unafraid to take the occasional liberty with the past.
There is very little surplus flesh on this novel. When Cornwell tells you something specific — for example that a Rifleman wraps his bullets in leather to improve their accuracy — he makes the detail count. He has a pleasing turn of phrase too — the unlovely Louis XVIII is variously dismissed as ‘a disgusting, gross lump of fat’ and ‘a sack of offal on legs the size of tree trunks’.
In genre terms, Sharpe and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher have much in common. Cornwell’s characters fall into three main categories: good guys, bad guys, and disposable extras. In one sense there’s little tension: we know our hero will survive — after all, he’s already appeared in Sharpe’s Devil (2010), set in 1820-21.
Frankly who cares? Sharpe’s Assassin impels you to turn the pages faster and faster, increasingly desperate to find out what happens next, and how on earth our hero will not merely survive but triumph. You don’t read a book like this: you devour it, and then you look forward to the next one.