William Eaton, brash and defiant diplomat, is dispatched to Tripoli in 1805 by Thomas Jefferson to free 300 American hostages in what became the first U.S. covert mission to overthrow a foreign nation.
The animalistic Barbary pirates, far from the swashbuckling Errol Flynn variety, provide ample villainy for Zacks’s (The Pirate Hunter, 2002, etc.) recap of an obscure historical event. Bashaw Yussef is the ruler of Tripoli, controls the high seas and demands tributes from nations desiring safe passage for their vessels. America, young and desperate to defy tyranny, refuses the Bashaw’s extortion and ends up in an overseas hostage situation at a time when its fledgling navy boasts six ships in total. While enforcing a blockade, the Philadelphia runs aground off Tripoli’s coast, and the entire crew of 300 is enslaved. The set-up to this true underdog narrative barrels forward like a cinematic tidal wave and continues when a flawed savior is called upon, the disgraced and ill-prepared Eaton being sent to place the Bashaw’s exiled brother on the throne and rescue the hostages without paying tribute. The engaging “first act” is one hook after another, but as Eaton’s mission falters, so does the forward motion of the story. Infantry headcounts and pages of diplomatic correspondence take center stage in lieu of shipwrecks and betrayal among men both captive and free. Zacks does an expert job of explaining the diplomacy and machinations of the U.S. government even when those fail to rise to the dramatic urgency of the story’s central event. He also fills these gaps in the action with many exquisitely researched, character-enhancing tangential anecdotes, including a riveting account of the perpetration of deceit against George Washington by a lesser-known diplomat named Lear. Where Zacks excels is in his research, quipping asides and loving grasp of the subject; where he slides are in the places he can’t alter.
When this sometimes slow story picks up steam, the pages sail by.