Book Review: “Burke in the Land of Silver” by Tom Williams

This is a historical fiction novel set in the Napoleonic era. It follows British lieutenant James Burke, who is in Argentina as a “confidential agent.” A spy, in other words. While there, he assumes different identities of varying nationalities to worm his way into a position where he can learn the latest news.

With Napoleon’s power growing, the British are trying everything they can to undermine him, which includes taking an interest in Spanish-controlled Argentina. Burke allies with some freedom fighters to scout the land for a potential invasion by His Majesty’s forces.

Of course, this is a spy thriller, and Burke, like another famous literary spy with the initials J.B., is a ladies’ man, and soon is sleeping with Ana, the beautiful wife of a local merchant. Ana has all sorts of connections with major players in Argentinian politics, and in addition to their romance, provides Burke with useful information for plotting a British invasion.

But Burke also makes powerful enemies, including one who soon proves to be critical to the future of the nation. Amidst political machinations and the occasional bumbling of his own country’s military commanders, Burke finds himself having to improvise one plan after another to keep himself alive.

The book is engaging and fun. I know next to nothing about 19th-century South American politics, but the story and characters are so vivid it was easy to follow along with the plot. Williams’ descriptions of the terrain are excellent, making it easy to picture the caravans, troop movements, and other maneuvers in which Burke is involved.

There is also just the faintest element of the supernatural to the tale. At the very beginning and the very end, Burke has an unusual experience which makes him feel like a man guided by the hand of Fate. It’s very subtle, as is appropriate, but I liked the touch.

Burke is a supremely capable man, pragmatic and sometimes cold, though he can be swayed by feminine wiles. He occasionally pauses to reflect on the grim amorality of his work, as he manipulates events and people to further the aims of the British Empire.

In fact, if you read between the lines, while Burke may tell himself he is doing this to defeat the evil Corsican, in actual fact it’s hard not to see it as simply one more conquest by Britain. As best I can tell, l’Empereur was interested in South America solely to the extent it was a possession of Spain, with which he was allied. British foreign policy in the early 19th-century was that Bonaparte’s empire had to be destroyed, and the best way of doing that was to establish an even bigger empire, that happened to be owned by London. Convenient, eh?

But I don’t expect you to trust me on this point, dear reader. After all, I have been accused of harboring Bonapartist sentiments in the past. (I swear, the bust of him on my bookshelf is only there for aesthetic reasons!)

Read the book for yourself, and make your own judgments. Because, while Williams may take literary license now and then, the events are firmly rooted in historical fact. Like, James Burke was a real person. So was Ana, and so was the main antagonist of the book, whose name I’ll not reveal since it could be something of a spoiler.

As I read it, I kept thinking what a good film or TV series this book would make. I was picturing Patrick McGoohan in the role of Burke. Of course, even if we could use a time machine to offer the role to the late Mr. McGoohan, he would probably turn it down for much the same reason he did the role of 007. Alternatively, one could imagine Rowan Atkinson as Burke and Tony Robinson as his servant, William Brown, but that’s not quite the right tone…

But enough of this idle silliness! Read this highly entertaining book, and whatever conclusions you draw about Burke or the nation he serves, appreciate British military intelligence for all the amazing tales of espionage they’ve given us over the centuries.

7 Comments

  1. I haven’t read a good historical spy thriller in yonks. My only foray into stories set in that era are the Richard Sharpe novels, which I read ages ago, and the first of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I like the sound of this one especially as the protagonist was a real person.

    1. I’ve never read the Sharpe novels, although I have read about them, and I get the sense if you enjoyed them, you will probably enjoy these as well.

  2. Great book, Berthold. Just finished it and waiting now for the next one. He did a masterful job of weaving an obscure, for most of the world, part of history into a compelling story.

    1. Yes! And I’m really looking forward to reading the next one, too. It’s set during Napoleon’s Egypt campaign, which is another lesser-known but very interesting period.

      Also, wow, you read fast!

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