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COWARD ON THE BEACH: 1 (DICK COWARD 1)
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Readers enthusiastic for details of real commando raids, for a picture of what it was like on Gold Beach, and into the Normandy hedgerows, will be very satisfied. Readers who know little of the subject, and find non-fiction accounts a bit boring, will learn far more than they ever expected while being hugely entertained.
On the other hand, maybe it's just because this is the first book in the series, and Delingpole is still developing his approach. There clearly is a lot of potential in Dick Coward, and I'll definitely give him another chance when COWARD AT THE BRIDGE comes out in paperback.
However, as far as I can tell from this initial entry in what is projected to be a ten-book series, the comparison to Flashman is ill-placed. Yes, it uses a "reminisces" framework just like Flashman, and yes, tantalizing hints are given about the hero's involvement in an impossible array of famous WWII engagements -- fighting with the Germans at Stalingrad, fighting through Burma (as Flashman's creator so ably described in Quartered Safe Out Here), fighting Rommell in North Africa, and dropping into Operation Market Garden (which is the subject of the next book in the series Coward at the Bridge). However, Coward is not an outrageously lucky cad like Flashman, instead, he is largely the reverse: an outrageously unlucky brave gentleman. Flashman usually came out smelling like roses, while Coward's noble efforts seem to always lead to the brink of court-martial. But enough about Flashman, the book should be read on its own merits and the publisher does the author a disservice by invoking that hallowed name.
This book starts in 1944 and Coward rather confusingly seems to be discharged from the Army following a severe illness. Due to wacky circumstances involving the family fortune and his odious brother (and the batted eyes of a pretty woman), he finagles his way back into uniform, specifically the green beret of the 47 Royal Marine Commando, which is almost done preparing for its important role in the D-Day invasion. Accompanying him in these (and apparently all endeavors) is his redoubtable one-testicled sidekick Price, who is actually placed as his Sargent in the 47 RMC. Price is perhaps best imagined as a combination of super-capable military man a la Sharpe, and ever-reliable, ever-forward thinking sidekick a la Jeeves. In any event, by placing the duo in the commando, the author is then able to tell an unvarnished version of the D-Day landing at Gold Beach, replete with men crushed by landing craft, men forced to shed their clothes lest they drown, and a whole laundry list of things gone wrong during D-Day. Coward's unit is tasked with capturing the heavily defended port town of Port de Bessin with not nearly enough men, support, or equipment. Horrific, adventurous, humorous, and wacky antics ensure.
And that last line says quite a bit about why the book isn't nearly as entertaining as it could be. Aside from the "big twist" at the end being pretty obvious, the book is tonally all over the map, lurching from comedy to Boys Own adventure to sappy tragedy to sex farce with very uneven pacing. It might well be that the author is just getting his sea legs here, and future installments will flow much more smoothly. To be sure, the military history and details are all quite well done (according to the end notes, the book draws heavily on From Omaha to the Scheldt: The Story of 47 Royal Marine Commando by John Forfar, as well as D-Day 1944 by Ken Ford and Battle Zone Normandy: Gold Beach by Simon Trew) and I learned a lot as I read. However, it's the kind of book I read avidly, all the while wishing it were better than it is.
Here we meet Coward in 1944, with quite a backstory behind him - flying Spits in the Battle of Britain, North Africa, Stalingrad, Italy, Burma. I assume we will see these various events later volumes, as apparently the author plans to write 10 Coward novels (presently there is a sequel, Coward at the Bridge, about Op Market Garden, and a planned release Coward in the Woods, which may cover the Battle of the Bulge). There is even an old antogonist introduced - and he is somewhat chilling, despite the fact we have never met him before.
Coward ends up storming the beach on D-Day as a Royal Marine commando, taking a gun emplacement, getting captured, led up the garden path by a pretty girl or two, wounded, and generally misunderstood. For all that he is our protangonist, and a bit noble, Coward is also a little bit silly, and a bit of an upper class prat. For the most part though, the story is well told, and gallops along merrily. There is battle, sex, bridge and banter. If you like Flashman, and WWII history, then this is the perfect book to read on a beach, on a plane...anywhere, really. Its not Anna Karenina, but then again, who is?