Brendan Detzner reviews "To Catch An Eagle" by William Calabrese
“To Catch An Eagle” by William Calabrese takes place during the Revolutionary war. More specifically, it tells the story of John Champe, a low level officer in the American army who is given the job of kidnapping Benedict Arnold and bringing him, alive, to General Washington. In order to do this, Champe must pretend to become a turncoat himself and navigate the cesspool that British-occupied New York City has become.
It isn’t often that we see this particular time period used a setting for anything except a war story. The era tends to bring up images of troops trudging along dirt roads, generals contemplating hand drawn maps by lantern light, and countless fine young men writing letters home to their sweethearts and hoping that the damned war will end soon. More importantly, it tends to be depicted as a time in which Good and Bad were polarized and easy to identify by the uniform they happen to be wearing. The total effect is to create almost a parallel world, like the West as occupied by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, a world that has less to do with history then it does genre expectations.
“Eagle” does not occupy this world, and it’s a much better book because of it. Calabrese is writing either about people who could easily have really existed (and sometimes, in the case of Benedict Arnold, George Washington, and some others, about people that really did exist). Because the story isn’t locked down into formula, it is free to explore areas, both physical and mental, that we haven’t seen before. The vivid portrayal of seedy, war torn New York is one example. It quickly becomes clear to us that nothing can be taken for granted there. The conflicting emotions of the protagonist are another. When he begins his mission, Champe is totally committed to the Washington’s army, but as he acts the part of the turncoat and gets a chance to see things from the other side’s point of view his allegiance becomes more and more questionable.
In this respect, “To Catch An Eagle” is more reminiscent of a noir then of a traditional historical action story. We have a blighted urban setting, a set of characters whose motivations are shrouded, a pair of contrasting femme fatales (Benedict Arnold’s wife on one hand, and a young member of the city’s resistance movement on the other), and at the center of it all a tough hero trying to do the right thing in a world that isn’t necessarily going to reward him for it.
The character of John Champe is primarily responsible for keeping all these different elements from seeming anachronistic. While it’s clear that John would feel much more comfortable on the battlefield leading a charge with Mel Gibson, he never seems to stand apart from the urban setting. He’s a fish out of water, but he’s a vivid, realistic fish out of water, so the fact that we’ve never really seen a character in a situation like his in this particular time period makes his plight more believable, not less. The whole book is like that- it’s unusual approach gives it authority.
And, just in case you might be getting the impression that the book is just a really well done set piece, it should be emphasized that “Eagle” is also an extremely engaging read. The action sequences are frequent without being repetitious, the plot twists and turns without ever becoming less then clear, and the suspense never lets up for a minute. The book isn’t quite perfect (the last couple of pages especially struck me as being on the saccharine side), but it’s faults are so minor that they demand to be overlooked. It’s a good read in the best sense of the word; it will entertain you throughout and not leave you feeling cheated after it’s done. You’ll enjoy it.
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