Book Review: “Soldiers of Fortune” by Richard Harding Davis (1897)

I read somewhere about Richard Harding Davis, who was a journalist during the Spanish-American War and a major supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s political career. He was one of those rough and tumble, vigorous living types, and so when I read he’d written an adventure novel, I had to check it out. What could be better than a tale of adventure and combat and danger, written by a man who had experienced same? I settled in for a rollicking story of action and thrills.

What I got was not that, but something much more interesting.

Oh, to be sure, there are plenty of battles in this book. The hero of the story, Robert Clay, is an engineer for a mining company in South America. He just wants to build mines, but local politics keep it from being so simple. President Alvarez and his wife are plotting to dissolve the small republic and reign as monarchs. Meanwhile, the ambitious General Mendoza is plotting to oust them in a coup and establish himself as dictator. All the while, the people prefer the Vice President, the gallant General Rojas.

In this volatile mix, Clay finds himself trying to run a lucrative mining operation sure to be disrupted by a political revolution. When the mine’s owner, Mr. Langham, comes to visit, he brings his daughter Alice, the star of the New York social scene, with whom Clay has been obsessed for years.

As an aside, there is all this talk early on about “debutantes” and “seasons” and whole social structures which I don’t understand at all. This is kind of embarrassing, but I still don’t really have a handle on what a woman making her “debut” is. I felt like I was reading about an alien civilization.

And this leads me to what was surprising about this book: there is far, far more focus on relationships and conversations than I was expecting. For an adventure book, it has a great many dances and conversations about feelings.

For instance, at one point, after a visit to the mines, Clay is disappointed Alice doesn’t show more interest in his work, and she is disappointed he didn’t take a more active role in showing her around:

“I wanted to hear about it from you, because you did it. I wasn’t interested so much in what had been done, as I was in the man who accomplished it.”

To which Clay replies:

“But that’s just what I don’t want,” he said. “Can’t you see? These mines and other mines like them are all I have in the world. They are my only excuse for having lived in it so long. I want to feel that I’ve done something outside of myself.”

This is the sort of honest conversation about feelings that is important in all relationships. The fact that these two are able to talk things out this way clarifies things and saves much heartache down the line.

That’s what impressed me most about the book: how straightforward everyone is, particularly Clay. I know that I, the master of the long-winded, rambling, convoluted blog post, am a fine one to talk, but when it comes to serious matters of interpersonal relationships, directness is quite valuable.

The book places a much heavier emphasis on relationship details like this than I expected, and you know what? That’s a good thing. It makes the characters feel interesting and alive. True, those expecting non-stop action will be a little disappointed, although there is one big battle sequence at the end that is really well done.

Now, a word about covers. The one pictured above is the cover for the edition I read. I hate it. It looks like a Warren Zevon album. It’s got guns and money; all that’s missing is the lawyers. And while both this book and the Zevon song are indeed about danger and crime in South America, this is just the wrong vibe for a book written in 1897.

Then we have this cover for a paperback. It is… odd. Clearly, it depicts a modern soldier, but in the style of Classical artwork. It’s a striking image, but unfortunately this book is from neither the modern nor classical periods.

Next we come to the hardcover version. This is probably the best at capturing the book accurately. We have a handsome soldier, his young girlfriend, a plausibly South American setting… it’s not bad. A solid B+ entry, I’d say. Alas, this version costs $22.

And finally, there is the Classics Illustrated comic book edition. This, I admit, is tempting. From glancing at the Amazon preview, it’s clear they have taken many liberties with Davis’s story, but still, it looks interesting all the same. Doesn’t the central figure look a bit like David Niven as Phileas Fogg?

As a final note, just to reiterate, the book was written in 1897, and therefore has some language and depictions of characters that may disturb some readers. It’s actually pretty mild by the standards of the day, but nevertheless, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that.


  1. Got it, looks good. I know what you mean about debutants and all that stuff, my wife and daughter are crazy about Bridgerton. It is like an alien world, dare I mention

    1. I think you’ll enjoy it. And yes, the old Mars/Venus dichotomy does come to mind.

  2. Very late to the party! Finally catching up on your posts 😊 I like the sound of this one, especially the focus on relationships, a welcome addition to this sort of story. And, yes, such directness in relationships is to be valued. The number of times I’ve had the head-slapping moment of ‘just tell them what you mean!!’ in books and films.
    Your comment about ‘seasons’ and ‘debuts’ made me chuckle. It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I finally realised what it all meant… still find it an odd tradition.
    And the covers are very strange, I wouldn’t have picked any of them up except for the Classics Illustrated one. You’re right, he does look like David Niven as Phileas Fogg; such a fun film!

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