The idyllic English seaside town of Deal is transformed so regularly of a night into a hotbed of “owling”—smuggling, to a non–18th-century reader—that those involved in the illegal trade refer to Deal as “Smuggler’s Beach.” Word of the town’s fame has reached no less than the Lord Chief Justice, who entreats blind magistrate and sometime sleuth Sir John Fielding to investigate Deal’s young magistrate, Sir Albert Sarton. But though stuffy squire Sir Simon Grenville and his crony, Chief Customs Officer George Eccles, accuse Sarton of incompetence or criminal activity, they seem far more incensed by his marriage to a tart former cook. Nothing daunted, Fielding obligingly travels to Deal with his protégé and amanuensis Jeremy Proctor and Clarissa Roundtree, secretary and ward of the absent Lady Fielding, who’s off tending her sick mother in York. Jeremy and Clarissa, both on the verge of adulthood, flirt between rounds of snooping, he among waterfront ruffians, she at Mrs. Keen’s tearoom and forbidding Deal Castle, where she’s spooked by a legendary ghost. A handful of murders raise the stakes. Series irregular Black Jack Bilbo helps Jeremy negotiate Deal’s piratical underside, and provides the muscle needed to neutralize the smuggling ring, while along the way introducing us to such colorful locals as reformed owler Dick Dickens and French pirate queen Marie-Hélène.
Maritime action à la Patrick O’Brian overshadows a leisurely, predictable mystery. Still, Jeremy’s curiosity and enthusiasm are infectious, and Sir John performs in his eighth adventure (The Color of Death, 2000, etc.) with his usual Holmesian panache.