A Friendly Little War – John Sherman

Our story begins in 1861, at the start of the American Civil War. Charles Bartlett, the main protagonist, does not cover himself in glory at the Battle of Bull Run – his almost slapstick exit from the battle leads to his posting to London as a military attaché for the Union Army. For military attaché read spy. Under normal circumstances Bartlett could perhaps consider himself a little hard done by – as a military man he is desperate to be back home in the thick of the fighting. But it isn’t long before Bartlett finds himself conducting deadly sabotage against a Confederate ship in a Liverpool dock. His co-saboteur is one Robert Jones, a much more experienced spy who has been building his network of information in Paris. Despite Bartlett’s initial inexperience, the two will become firm friends.

From London, our story takes us across the Channel to France, and from there, across the Atlantic to Mexico, where Bartlett will again find himself in the midst of the action. Something that no doubt his superiors in Washington were not expecting when posting him to a desk job in London. And A Friendly Little War is certainly not lacking in action or intrigue  – fast paced, but retaining attention to detail, the plot is well crafted – and could not in any regard be described as predictable. In conjunction, characters – including those in the periphery – are introduced to the story in a very natural fashion. Of particular note is Morny, the Emperor Napoleon’s half-brother, who is delightfully written.

A recurring theme throughout the book is that of Bartlett’s relationship with his landlady, Lady Katherine Carra. Bartlett perhaps doesn’t always make his life easy when it comes to Lady Katherine; this notwithstanding she is an exceptionally frustrating female – and therefore an extremely realistic character! A widow whose husband was seriously disabled in the Crimean War (polishing cutlery!), we would do wise not to take her as a superficial love interest – there is much more to Lady Katherine than we would initially imagine.

Those with a lesser knowledge of the Civil War might not perhaps realise the sphere of influence that the English-French-Spanish alliance and their relationship in terms of Mexico had on the hostilities across the Atlantic. Nor might they appreciate the importance of naval warfare and its evolving technology in terms of iron clad warships and explosive ordnance had on a conflict that is often portrayed as being purely a land war. The Irish Fenians also make their presence felt, in the form of Katherine Carra’s brother, Owen.

In conclusion, A Friendly Little War is thoroughly enjoyable, extremely well researched and placed in context with great aplomb. Sadly, the author never had the pleasure of seeing his work published, having passed away in 2007. As such, the book is being published in memory of the author and his second son, Ian, by the author’s widow and younger son. Profits from the sale of the book will go to The Stroke Association and Cancer Research, and I would certainly like to wish them very well in raising the profile of such an engaging novel.

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling is the Editor of The History Herald. He has a keen interest in Second World War and Cold War history, and with a great grandfather who was killed during the Battle of the Somme, he also has a fascination with First World War history.

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