The eve of World War 2. Hitler is finalising plans for the conquest of Europe and flexing his muscles in Spain, while the Japanese are poised to invade China, and eyeing off the resources of the East Indies and Indochina to fuel their war machine.
Dangerous times, but there are still profits to be made by men like hard-bitten Skipper Bill Rowden and his vagabond crew, as they work their aging tramp steamer around the treacherous waters of the Far East. Uncharted reefs, tropical storms, corrupt officials, smuggling and piracy are all in a day’s work to Rowden and his crew, which includes an embittered hard drinking aristocrat, a knife-wielding Welshman and a hot-headed, hard-fisted Australian.
On what begins as a routine voyage to New Guinea, Rowden discovers an illegal shipment of arms concealed in his ship, setting off a chain of increasingly dangerous events that drag him unwittingly into the centre of Nazi, Soviet and British attempts to gain the upper hand, before war finally breaks out.
Entangled with Chinese warlords, triads and a beautiful Russian adventuress, Rowden narrowly escapes Shanghai before the bombs start to fall, but his enemies are closing in. Deep in the Pacific, in a remote coral fringed lagoon, Rowden and his crew face a violent and explosive confrontation, with little more than fists and wits to keep them alive.
Oriental Vagabonds chronicles the trials and tribulations of a tramp steamer and her crew exploring the waters and trade ports of the Far-East on the eve of World War II. The story begins with the introduction of Captain Bill Rowden and his crew of bustling misfits while docked in Sydney Harbour. Following Rowden in the chain of command is chief mate ‘Lord’ Peter Lowther, the quintessential British gentleman with a penchant for gin and a history serving with the Navy during the Great War. Next in line is second mate David Griffith, a hot-headed Welshman who is constantly battling societal attitudes towards homosexuality. The newest member of Captain Rowden’s crew is the brash and youthful Australian third mate James McGrath, a young man who is never frightened to punch his way out of a difficult situation. The characters are well developed and together form the heart and backbone of the story.
Throughout the novel the Oriental Venture and her crew stop from port to port delivering various traded goods. However, their usual routine is interrupted when an unexpected passenger brings goods on to their ship which will have further reaching consequences than any of them could have imagined. As tensions rise between the yet to be formed Axis and Allied powers the crew find themselves embroiled in conflicts they had hoped to avoid. On top of all this there is also the threat of uncharted reefs and tropical storms to consider.
Richard Regan immerses the reader in the period of 1937 as we are transported to such places as Sydney, Singapore, Shanghai, and the islands of the Philippines. Regan served in the British Merchant Marines for many years aboard various freighters, tankers and passenger ships and these experiences travelling the globe are evident throughout the novel. The array of sights, settings and characters introduced in the story are so well defined that one can only imagine that they are based on real life experiences. Through his descriptions, Regan creates an authentic world where the reader can almost feel the warmth of a tropical climate and taste the spices of local cuisines.
Ultimately Oriental Vagabonds is a story about everyday people faced with fantastical circumstances. A key theme found throughout the novel is the question of morality and how far is it acceptable to go when faced with a difficult decision. The enduring notion of the book is that readers will consistently ask themselves what they would do in the same position without leading them to the decisions made by the characters. With hindsight of course we know that was a particularly tense period of history in which the world was on the verge of another global war. The characters in the novel, however, are not aware of this impending doom. This lends to moments of suspense but also to moments of humour as members of the crew are blissfully ignorant of just how close they are to another World War.
Whilst some characters may feel like stereotypes and certain story elements are undoubtedly exaggerated, overall this is a fantastic read with well rounded characters and a thrilling narrative