You may remember that a had a recent post (September 1) on Why Do Bad Books Get Published? I now have an example: The Tiger’s Prey, by “Wilbur Smith with Tom Harper”. I bought in from the local bookstore here in Sicily, which has a rather limited English language shelf, because years ago I read Wilbur Smith’s When the Lion Feeds, his first novel (1964) which I thought was great story-telling. By 2014 Smith had published 35 novels with sales of 120 million copies, 24 million of them in Italy. He is now 86 years old.
In 2012, he moved his publishing to Harper Collins. As part of his new deal, Smith would be writing select novels with co-writers, in addition to writing books on his own. In a press release Smith was quoted as saying: “For the past few years my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them. For them, I am willing to make a change to my working methods so the stories in my head can reach the page more frequently.” Smith’s Wikipedia page lists five co-writers; in the last five years he has only written one book in his own name.
So who is Tom Harper, and how much of The Tiger’s Prey did he write? The answer to the latter question is not in the public record. The answer to the first question is that he is a novelist, “13 thrillers and historical adventures”, born (1977) and brought up in Germany, now living in York, England.
In the previous post, I said, “It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.”
Could that be the case for The Tiger’s Prey?
This novel is set in Cape Town and India in the 18th century, and it focuses on a family of seafaring, English aristocrats. There are plenty of adventures:
- Tom Courtney wins a sea battle with pirates while being seriously out gunned and out manned.
- The head of the East India Company sends a derelict boy, Francis, who is Tom’s nephew to kill Tom as revenge for Tom’s accidental killing of Francis’ father.
- There is a battle between Tom and Francis in which several others are killed.
- Christopher Courtney breaks with his father, Guy, who runs the Company office in Bombay and joins the crew of a trading ship. (Guy and Tom are bad blood twin brothers)
- Christopher is flogged by the captain, later kills him, steals the captain’s money box, sets fire to the ship, and goes ashore.
- Christopher joins a Hindu warrior school. He is on a mission when he rescues a woman on the road who is threatened with rape and kills her assailant.
- The woman runs a band of brigands and he joins her band.
- Francis joins Tom on a trading mission to India.
- The ship that Tom, his wife Sarah and Francis are on is shipwrecked, and they are intercepted by the army of a local Indian ruler, but they find their way to a local Company fort.
- Christopher and his female leader become lovers and steal a money chest belonging to the local ruler.
- They are captured and imprisoned by the Rani, the local ruler.
- Christopher is forced by the Rani to kill his lover; he takes a position in her army.
- The Company chief at the fort falls out with the Rani, and sends a military mission to negotiate with her.
- The mission is attacked, the chief is killed, and the survivors retreat to the fort.
- The fort is attacked by the Rani’s men but Tom resists the siege until the Company rescues them.
- Tom goes to Madras and finds that his wife, who left the fort early, has been taken by pirates, and held for ransom.
- Christopher joins the pirate leader; Guy refuses to attack the pirate; Tom cannot steal the money to pay the ransom.
- Tom finds a rajah who is willing to fight the pirate and gives Tom and Francis command.
- The pirate castle is sieged successfully and the women freed.
- Tom and Christopher fight and the latter jumps off the castle wall.
- Tom gets a large portion of the pirate’s treasure and Christopher gets together with the widowed wife of the Company chief.
But it isn’t just one barely credible adventure after another, the book is full of brutal violence and some unloving, explicit, rather forceful sex. Moreover, there is a complicated backstory about the Courtney family which adds to the credibility burden which the story bears. The characters tend to be black or white, good or bad, with little depth or complexity. And what motivates our hero, Tom? It is mostly to recapture a precious family sword, which has been taken from him and falls into several evil hands. The sword is described with typical hyperbole: “he had used it to send countless men to their deaths they so well deserved. It was made from the finest Toledo steel, and the supple weight of the blade was perfectly balanced by the star sapphire in the pommel.” One might ask, also, what the title of the book has to do with the story. The only tigers in the story are either rugs or the subject of a hunt organised by the rajah; the hunt does nothing to advance the story.
There were several factual errors in the first few pages. East Africa was mentioned as a leg of the slave trade with America and the Caribbean; it was West Africa. During the first sea battle, a “brazier on an iron tripod” is brought out and used to heat the tip of a sword. This is extremely unlikely. The only heating on a wooden sailing ship was the in the cook’s galley, which was extinguished before battle for fear of fire. The only exception would be to heat shot (in the galley). There is also mention of an un-manned broadside. To be un-manned, the powder in each gun would have to be lit by a long fuse, and since the burn time of 18th century fuses was highly variable, it was unlikely to be a effective broadside.
There are two areas where Mr Harper shines: his knowledge of 18th century seamanship and exotic Indian lore.
Give it a pass.