Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review: Sharpe's Tiger

Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell (1997)

The year is 1799 and the place is Mysore, India, where the British are marching on Tipoo Tiger's stronghold at Seringapatam.  In the ranks of 33rd regiment of Foot is Private Richard Sharpe and he is carefully considering the option of deserting.  That question become moot when the insane Seargent Hakeswill frames Sharpe on a charge of striking him and Sharpe is condemned to 2,000 lashes–a death penalty.  However, the punishment is stopped after 200 and Sharpe is sent to see the expedition's commander, General Harris.  It turns out that an intelligence officer has gone missing in Seringapatam and Lieutenant William Lawford is being sent in to rescue him.  Sharpe, with his scarred back, is ordered to go along to bolster their cover as deserters along with Sharpe's lady, the half-caste Mary Bickerstaff,. On reaching Seringapatam Sharpe and Lawford are accepted into Tipoo's army and discover a deadly trap that the British are walking into blindly.

Chronologically, Sharpe's Tiger is the first of Cornwell's popular Sharpe novels, though actually a later story penned when Cornwell revisited Sharpe's past to fill in the gaps.  When we first meet Sharpe he's about as low on the bottom of life's heap as you can get.  A private in an army he joined to dodge an arrest for murder, he serves under a popinjay of a Captain and a murdering sadist of a Sergeant who plots to kill him and steal his woman.  No wonder desertion seems the better option.  His being tapped for a secret mission behind enemy lines not only saves his life, but puts him on the road that would soon make him an officer and a constant thorn in Bonaparte's side.

The Sharpe we see here is Sharpe as he remains through the series; resourceful, angry, disdainful of officers, dangerous in a fight, irresistible to women and a natural-born leader of men.  And that's just before breakfast.  However, this story is refreshing because we see the first time Sharpe's qualities are allowed to come to the fore, how unnerving it is for Lieutenant Lawford when he finds himself reversing roles with Private Sharpe and how Sharpe loses his woman not so much to a romantic rival as to her Indian heritage.  It's also where we see the moment when Sharpe realises he isn't just a man who's in the army; he's a soldier.

As usual, Cornwell does his history proper and moulds fact and fiction neatly. The Sharpe novels are one of those reads that a man picks up and enjoys like a well-drawing pipe, but causes the wife to shake her head; unable to quite see what's the attraction of blood, thunder, sex and secret missions in a colonial war two hundred years ago.  Oddly, enough I can never explain it to her because what mystifies her is the explanation.

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