Dr. F. Dogbody is temporarily ashore after a career as a Royal Navy surgeon. At the Cheerful Tortoise tavern in Portsmouth, he weaves tales of his career afloat, of the ships and battles he served in, and of life in a warship’s bloody operating room. Each of the tales is matched to the experiences of one of his listeners, who can confirm details known only to one who witnessed the events. Backed up by souvenirs Doctor Dogbody carries with him, the tales each have an air of truth, and each culminates in the loss of his left leg. But how can all of the stories be true? And how can the regulars at the Cheerful Tortoise claim no knowledge of what really happened to the good doctor’s leg?
Those questions take a back seat to the evocative atmosphere James Norman Hall creates. Coauthor of the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy with Charles Nordhoff, Hall has knowledge of naval affairs rivaling that of Patrick O’Brian, and his storytelling skill makes each tale a pleasure to read. The secondary characters that populate the tavern—our host Will Tunn; Tom Tapleke, the lurking listener; Balthus, the old gunner; mapmaker Ostiff —are true to life. The reader can almost smell the wood smoke and wet woolen boatcloaks in the Tortoise, and see the candlelight reflected in burnished fixtures. Asea, salt air, creaking rigging, and the furious sounds of battle bring the Age of Sail to life. Hall also takes on England’s social structure, using Dogbody to explore the evils of slavery, the export of convicts to Australia, and the press gangs that roamed the English dockyards.
Dogbody is also fortunate to encounter Lord Nelson, Catherine the Great, and Benjamin Franklin, among other notables. So what if he lost his leg to a Sikh swordsman, a Russian wolf, a sea serpent, and a Revolutionary guillotine? As a character in his own stories, he is colorful and memorable to all who encounter him, especially readers who meet the garrulous doctor in these pages.
Doctor Dogbody’s Leg is part of The Heart of Oak Sea Classics, which was edited by Dean King, one of WRL’s favorite authors. King has also written a biography of Patrick O’Brian, an atlas and a lexicon to the Aubrey/Maturin series, and most recently Unbound, an incredible history of the handful of women who made The Long March at the height of the Chinese Revolution. Doctor Dogbody’s Leg easily qualifies for the most fun project he’s been involved in.
Check the WRL Catalog for Doctor Dogbody’s Leg