Singapore Passage by Donald Barr Chidsey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I recently discovered the all-but-forgotten pulp writer Donald Barr Chidsey when I read his novel The Flaming Island. Chidsey was a regular contributor to the pulp magazines in the 1930s, writing in a wide range of genres as many of the old pulp writers did. He spent much of his youth as a merchant seaman and wrote many stories set on the sea in various exotic locales. Later in life he earned a bit of fame as a history writer, once again focusing on the sea.
As I noticed in The Flaming Island, Chidsey is best when writing about the sea. His scenes on land are routine pulp fare, exciting and fun but not outstanding. When his characters unfurl the sails and get out onto the ocean, however, then Chidsey's prose really shines. His love of the sea and his deep knowledge of maritime life comes through in every sentence.
Luckily, Singapore Passage mostly takes place on the waves. It's the mid-19th century, and a first mate with a near-mutinous crew has to become temporary captain when his boss gets stabbed in a tavern. His goal--make the Singapore Passage with a shipment of opium before the competition. If he wins, he'll get rich and get a ship of his own. If he loses, he's stuck in his current position. Besides the crew, he's got pirates to worry about plus a female missionary on board who hates the opium trade. What's a sailor to do?
Singapore Passage is a great read, with lots of interesting detail about the East Asia trade in the Age of Sail. For example, Chinese ingots, called sycee, came in various forms, including ones that looked like a woman's slipper! There's also plenty of action, and of course some sexual tension between the first mate and the missionary. All in all, a fun little read.
View all my reviews