17/07/2007

The Unknown Ajax (by Georgette Heyer)

No matter how many new authors I find and enjoy, I always come back to re-reading Georgette Heyer. She was a prolific writer of fiction, mainly historical novels, with excellent plots and characterisation. I have most of her books on my shelves, and re-read them all every few years.

I last read 'The Unknown Ajax' in 2002, and five years is a good space between readings, I find. I could, just about, remember the overall plot - particularly as I got further into the story - but I'd forgotten most of the detail. I'd also forgotten just what a delightful character Heyer creates in Hugo, the large 'Ajax' of the title.

The story is set on the South coast of England, during the period when smuggling was rife; government taxes on whisky and other items were considered unreasonable, so even respectable families turned a blind eye to the nightly goings-on near the sea. The family in this book are the upper-crust Darracotts, headed by the 80-year-old Lord Darracott who's a bad-tempered man who picks favourites.

As the story opens, Lord Darracott's heir and his son have just drowned at sea, and his next son, Matthew, is expected to step into his shoes when he dies. However Lord Darracott produces a bombshell - a grandson he has never met before. His father, Hugh, married a weaver's daughter and was thrown out of the family; Hugh died not long afterwards, but left a son, the large and amiable Hugo. Lord Darracott does not in the least want Hugo to be his heir, but has no choice... so he sends for him, in the hope of licking him into some kind of shape.

Hugo turns out to be quite different from everyone's expectations, much more intelligent than he seems, and with a wonderful sense of humour. He befriends some of his cousins and aunts, is despised by others, and slowly gets to know the neighbourhood...

It's not one of my absolute favourite Heyer books, but I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it. It's exciting with a very dramatic climax, and even when I knew what was coming it was difficult to put down.

Definitely recommended. It's been re-printed many times, although it's not currently in print in the USA. Can often be found second-hand.

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