Magazine | June 11, 2018, Issue

Colonial Caper

The Judge Hunter, by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., $26.95)

In 1660, the year he began to keep a diary, Samuel Pepys recorded his impression of an execution he happened upon in London: “Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered, . . . looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.” Afterwards, Pepys continued on to the local tavern with his companions, and “did give them some oysters.” Eleven years earlier, Pepys had witnessed the beheading of Charles I, in which the unfortunate Harrison had conspired, and now he’d seen retribution meted out by Charles’s son, the restored monarch. Christopher Buckley opens his new historical novel, The Judge Hunter, with this (real) diary entry. Its jauntiness in the face of horrors and political turmoil sets the tone for what’s to come.

The year is 1664. The head of Oliver Cromwell is rotting on a pike in London. Pepys, Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy, worries that England is about to embark on another war with the Dutch for which it is ill prepared. To add to his troubles, his young good-for-nothing brother-in-law, Balthasar de St. Michel, pesters him constantly for money and a position. Pepys hits on a scheme: He will ship Balty off to the New World on a quixotic quest to hunt down Edward Whalley and William Goffe, two aged judges who signed Charles I’s death warrant. They have escaped Charles II’s vengeance by seeking shelter, it is believed, in New England, where sympathetic Puritans have shielded them from the Crown’s reach. Pepys is able to secure a commission for this undertaking, on the rationale that it will, if nothing else, annoy the colonial authorities, with whom the king is none too pleased at the moment over their wayward persecution of various religious dissenters, among other things.

The hapless Balty is thus cast upon the shores of a wild continent, a Huguenot innocent abroad among Saints (as the Puritans call themselves) and savages. He is taken under the wing of Hiram Huncks, an agent of the Crown whose real mission is other than assisting Balty’s hunt for the regicide judges: Huncks, it is gradually revealed, is instead tasked with preparing the way of Colonel Richard Nicholls, who plans to sail into the harbor of New Amsterdam, then a backwater outpost administered by the Dutch West India company under Peter Stuyvesant, and seize the colony of New Netherland for England. Balty’s commission is a convenient cover for this purpose. And so Huncks, a seasoned and cynical former soldier, and Balty, a feckless, blundering naïf who can barely hold a gun, make their way from Boston to New Amsterdam, on horse, on foot, and by boat — with the threat of wild beasts, Indians, or some treachery on the part of hostile colonists always lurking.

Along the way they drop in on a dour John Endecott, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, an urbane Governor John Winthrop (the younger) in Hartford, and a cruel pair of self-righteous and hypocritical villains, Governor William Leete and the Reverend John Davenport of New Haven. These last two are occupied with persecuting Quakers, whose nonviolent resistance confounds and enrages them. Some Quaker women have taken to protesting by entering Puritan services without any clothing. Naturally, this catches the attention of Balty, who is smitten with a beautiful and angelic Quaker named Thankful. (Balty has a wife back home in England, but this obstacle turns out not to be insurmountable.) He intervenes to save Thankful from a terrible fate at the hands of Leete and Davenport, and she becomes entangled in Balty’s and Huncks’s missions.

Meanwhile, back in London, Pepys navigates the intrigues of the merry court of Charles II in an attempt to head off the disastrous war he thinks he sees on the horizon. His side of the story is recounted mostly through a series of fictional diary entries, in the style of the original, with bawdy asides and colorful details.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the plot gallops along to the island of Manhatoes. Buckley’s wry wit is on display throughout: The Puritan fathers especially come in for some skewering. In one conversation, Huncks ruffles the feathers of the Reverend Davenport by mocking the notion that God providentially cleared the land for the Puritan settlers by wiping out the Indian population with diseases akin to a Biblical plague. In another scene, he dryly observes: “What a lot of hating they task themselves with, Puritans. It’s a wonder they have any time left over to build the New Jerusalem.”

Not that the foibles and hypocrisies of non-Puritans get a pass: When Balty objects to some barbarous customs of Governor Winthrop’s Narragansett Indian guests, Winthrop counters, “My wife’s father was dragged on a sled from the Tower of London to Charing Cross, where he was hanged, cut down alive, disemboweled, his privy parts cut off and his body quartered, the parts impaled around the city. What would you call that, sir?” Touché.

Though the story is a comic adventure, rather gruesome real events loom in the background, the kind that are not dwelt on in the standard accounts of the period given to schoolchildren: the brutal slaying of the exiled dissenter Anne Hutchinson and her family at the hands of Siwanoy Indians; the cruel public corporal punishment of Quakers; the burning to death of 400 Pequot Indians in the Mystic Massacre. Against this landscape, the rape, murder, torture, and revenge that figure in the tale hardly seem like narrative excesses.

After years of writing satirical political novels, Buckley felt that by 2016, reality had outpaced satire, and so he turned to the past. As with his first historical novel, The Relic Master (2015), set in the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century, the characters and events of the period covered in The Judge Hunter offer a trove of material. While it’s handled lightly, like any good historical fiction the book sparks the reader’s interest in learning more about the events and people it touches on. Carefully researched and constructed with a wealth of authentic details, the novel succeeds in making a sometimes distant and stodgy-seeming era feel somehow contemporary.

Buckley’s description of Stuyvesant — the mostly forgotten namesake of many of New York City’s institutions, streets, and neighborhoods — is typically evocative: He had “a stern, Calvinist face that dared you to question its dignity or authority; there was also the unmistakable air of the isolato, the man apart, standing atop a parapet, directing cannon fire. Not a man you’d find at the center of jollity and camaraderie in a tavern.” Even the imposing Stuyvesant is played for laughs, though, with his thickly accented broken English and his weakness for tropical birds. (As it happens, his pet parrot, Johann, plays a key role in the dénouement.)

Pepys is, of course, wrong to fear that war is about to break out with the Dutch, at least this time. The bloodless handover of New Amsterdam is accomplished, much to Stuyvesant’s chagrin — that’s not exactly a matter of suspense. But the fate of Balty, Huncks, and the regicide judges remains tantalizingly uncertain till the end.

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