Benjamin Franklin may have single-handedly saved the U.S. from destruction in the Revolutionary War by persuading France to join America in an alliance against the British. But in the years leading up to his triumph, he had an arsenal of diplomatic tools in his kit, including letters of marque. Few Americans today know that the great American statesman commissioned a number of Irishmen as privateers, essentially self-employed mercenaries, to harass British shipping near their island home.
Luke Ryan was one of these legal pirates, and the historical figure is the main protagonist in a series of three novels by Mark M. McMillin. The first book, Gather the Shadowmen: The Lords of the Ocean, tells the story of a young British naval lieutenant, Irish by birth, who is despised by his English captain, but loved by his shipmates, many of whom have known him since childhood. After Ryan captures a French warship while his captain cowers in his cabin, Ryan is sent home in command of the Frenchman with a prize crew. He learns that his superior plans to take credit for the capture, along with the prize money, which would’ve made Ryan rich. Instead, Ryan returns the ship to the captured French sailors and becomes a smuggler. He and his Irish compatriots, sick of English arrogance and duplicity, become the Shadowmen, and they begin a life that will eventually bring them into Franklin’s sphere.
Ryan was born in Rush, northeast of Dublin, in 1750, the son of an Irish soldier in a French regiment. Growing up among local landowners, Ryan developed connections that eventually led him into the maritime trades. Much of Ryan’s early personal history is murky, and author McMillin uses the uncertainty to create a character who is intelligent, dashing, and a born leader, as well as opportunistic and shrewd. As the son of a soldier who grew up among Englishmen, McMillin’s Ryan finds it easy to move between the worlds of dominator and dominated, upper class and poorer class.
McMillin, who has a background in law and military history, weaves a believeable, often exciting narrative with a large cast of secondary characters, a few of whom are based on real people. Some of the scenes, particularly with Ryan’s lover, Shannon O’Keefe, the ambitious daughter of a merchant who stakes Ryan’s smuggling ventures, seem lifted from a Masterpiece Theatre costume drama. But Gather the Shadowmen succeeds in setting up the second and third novels in the series, Prince of the Atlantic and Napoleon’s Gold. The core of the American connection is Franklin’s plan to exchange U.S. prisoners of war for British seamen captured by Ryan and other privateers. McMillin illuminates a shady chapter in America’s war for independence while offering a character who could easily star in a dozen high-seas tales.