December 23, 2004


Bernard Cornwell may be a prolific, best-selling author, but he's still trying to make a name for himself here (Alex Beam, December 23, 2004, The Boston Globe)

There are places where Bernard Cornwell is a household name. His adopted home here on Cape Cod isn't one of them.

The British-born Cornwell has sold 12 million copies of his famous Napoleonic-era Richard Sharpe adventure novels alone. In addition, he has written three other series, five thrillers, and five other novels that defy easy categorization, such as 1999's ''Stonehenge," billed as a ''story of love, rivalry, treachery, and a great, mysterious temple."

Cornwell is a celebrity in his native England and almost as famous in Brazil and Japan. His books have been translated into 17 languages. But -- unlike, say, Stephen King -- he could walk the streets of Boston in complete anonymity. ''I am the least-known best-selling author in Massachusetts," he says. ''It's nice to come back here, where no one knows who you are."

Cornwell's low profile in his adopted home is partly by design. From outward appearances, he lives modestly, in a weather-worn, gray-shingled Cape Cod house partially visible from the road. Upon entering, a visitor realizes that Cornwell in fact owns two homes on lots that are joined by a 49-foot-long covered lap pool. The second dwelling, hidden from the road by a long fence, has guest rooms and his oak-beamed, cathedral-ceilinged, 4,000-volume library and work space.

His under-the-radar silhouette in the United States is not entirely intentional. In 1993, he launched a series of historical novels featuring Yale College dropout Nathaniel Starbuck, set during the Civil War. Asked if that was an attempt to duplicate the success of the Sharpe novels on American soil, Cornwell demurs a moment, and says, ''I suppose it was."

He stopped writing the ''Starbuck Chronicles" series in the mid-1990s and turned his attention back to the Sharpe novels, which were starting to be filmed for British television. That series ran on PBS's ''Masterpiece Theatre" in 1993 and 1995 but did not trigger a surge of US book sales. His first and only New York Times bestseller was ''Sharpe's Havoc," published last year.

It's worth recalling that even Patrick O'Brian wasn't Patrick O'Brian until Richard Snow called the Aubrey/Maturin books "the best historical novels ever written" on the front page of the January 6, 1991 NY Times Book Review, if then. But, at any rate, if you've not read Bernard Cornwell, especially the Sharpe novels, nor seen the BBC series, you're in for a real treat.

N.B. those looking for real hidden treasure should turn to Allan Mallinson's Matthew Hervey series.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 23, 2004 1:25 PM

I have always thought that Alexander Kent did the best job with the genre, for all that he just kept cranking them out and cranking them out.

Kent had a lot of actual modern-day RN experience and wound up as the curator of the H.M.S. Victory museum, walking Nelson's decks, day in and day out.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 23, 2004 1:41 PM
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