As an avid reader, I find it very rare that the cover art of a novel has anything significantly to do with the book's content. I find it even more rare when the cover art perfectly evokes both the period and the style put forth by the author. Such is the case with the marvelous works of fiction written by New York attorney, former Village Voice publisher and Explorers Club member Bartle Bull. I really don't have to write about these books. The covers tell you all you need to know.
Bull's work is in the form of five historical novels, with slightly overlapping characters. The first set of books is a trilogy beginning with The White Rhino Hotel, a story about British expatriate Anton Rider who, as a young man, leaves an orphaned childhood to make a life for himself in Africa as a big game hunter and guide. In Africa, Ryder collects an exotic group of friends, falls in love, faces exotic dangers, and learns that there is perhaps more to the remainder of his life than stalking the wild places. The characterization and settings of The White Rhino Hotel are lush and striking. The plotting is sophisticated and captivating. Even Bull's description of the meals his characters eat is perfect. Not to mention his "I want to go there" bars. And the sparingly utilized but vivid sex scenes. When the Great War breaks out at the end of White Rhino, the reader cannot wait to see what will become of Ryder and his friends.
Luckily, the reader does not have long to wait. Bull followed up his strong debut in White Rhino Hotel with A Cafe On The Nile and The Devil's Oasis which complete the Ryder saga in a fast paced, engrossing and fulfilling manner. Reading the Ryder trilogy is akin to having a fine meal late at night in a far away place with a gorgeous and exotic stranger you will never see again. A unique experience that you never forget.
Except that with Bartle Bull, you get another chance to experience his richly crafted adventures, this time in China after the fall of Imperial Russia. His fourth book, Shanghai Station, introduces us to White Russian Count Alex Karlov. Karlov escapes the fall of the Czar as a young man with only the clothes on his back, a strong sense of family and national history, and his little sister in tow. While trying to keep himself and his sister alive, Karlov, like Ryder, manages to learn and captivate a foreign land. The difference is that Karlov has this little problem with Communist assassins that complicate his efforts a bit. The equally fine volume China Star completes the Karlov story.
These are escapist adventures for grown-ups. With grown-up characters, issues and themes. Set in worlds where violence, evil and sadness are not only present, but lurking just outside the fire light. Worlds where honor, loyalty and character provide an edge by which the just eventually prevail. Just the antidote for the pablum which is foisted upon us as adult fiction by most of the media world today. Just the antidote also for the news broadcasts one sees every day.
I cannot say enough about the quality of these five books or about how much enjoyment they brought me when I read them. The first time. I have read them more than once. Imagine my delight when I learned that Bull had also written a grand history of Safari hunting which is recognized as the modern classic on the subject. Merely titled Safari, A Chronicle Of Adventure, this book teaches the reader about the glory and tragedy of the Safari era. The marvelous illustrations are worth the price of the book alone.
Summer vacations to exotic places may be difficult to come by this year. Ditto for dangerous adventures. But all is not lost. Put on a bit of khaki or faded linen. Pour yourself a stiff gin and tonic. Very cold, in a tall glass. As it should be. Then sit down, preferably in a deep, worn leather chair with a copy of The White Rhino Hotel. Drift off into the world that Bartle Bull has created for you. You will find yourself becoming a fan of his. That, at least, I can promise you.