Acclaimed historian and novelist Thomas Fleming's rates a big "About time!" for "Dreams of Glory," a spy story that ranks with the best of Len Deighton and Gerald Seymour (though their sympathies might lie with the other side).
One of the less well-known facts about George Washington is that he ran extensive and ingenious spy networks during the Revolutionary War and ranks as the American military commander who most effectively combined intelligence work with tactical planning.
This should be fertile ground for historical novelists, but it mystifyingly has been left largely fallow over the years. Of course, these themes were mined by James Fenimore Cooper a century and a half ago, most explicitly in "The Spy." Maybe that's the trouble - Cooper's dull prose could kill off darn near any genre.
In the dark days of the Revolution, with Washington's troops underfed and waiting out the winter, the British intelligence chief in New York City, Walter Beckford, concocts a plot to end the war in one bold stroke: Kidnap Washington, and the Continental Army wilts without him.
The murder of Ceasar, a black enlisted man in the Continental Army who is the slave of rich New York widow Flora Kuyper (and secretly her lover) alerts Washington's intelligence chief, Benjamin Stallworth, that some kind of plot is being hatched.
Stallworth sends Caleb Chandler, the young, idealistic camp chaplain, to bring the news to Flora and also to investigate. Caleb is immediately smitten with the gorgeous, exotic and intelligent Flora. He vows to protect her from whatever danger is lurking from Ceasar's killers.
But Flora is Beckford's finest agent, a Loyalist who makes Mata Hari look like a rank amateur. Along with young Caleb, Flora has also drawn Hugh Stapleton, an ambitious and selfish congressman, into her web. Stapleton prepares to liquidate his assets and abandon his family and the Revolution to sail off with Flora for a life of love and leisure. His obsession, of course, is all part of Beckwith's plan.
While Flora plays Stapleton like a fiddle, Caleb's earnestness and devotion begin to strike a chord in a woman who is used to being lusted after - in fact, her profession depends on it - but has never been truly loved.
Meanwhile, different factions in the British army are jockeying for position, seeking the glory of being the ones to deliver Washington to the festering prison ship in New York harbor, and Caleb's investigation leads him to a brilliant undercover agent who may be Flora's supposedly dead husband.
"Dreams of Glory" is a heady mix of intrigue, patriotism, cynicism, greed, lust, love, ambition and sudden, brutal violence. Of course, since Fleming is one of our best historians of the Revolution, the book is also filled with great period detail and is very illuminating of its historical context.
Though the novel does not directly tie in with Fleming's other Revolutionary War and Civil War novels - from "Liberty Tavern" to "Remember the Morning" that deal with different members of the Stapleton family - fans of those books will devour this one as well.
"Dreams of Glory" is the best novel of intrigue to be set in the American Revolution since Kenneth Roberts' "Oliver Wiswell." As in that great book, Fleming points out that the Loyalist cause was alive and well throughout the Revolution - unlike in the movie, "The Patriot," which in its weakest moments presented them as a tiny, evil minority. In reality, nearly a third of the colonists remained loyal to King George.
And "Dreams of Glory" is likely to earn loyalty for Fleming among those who like their historical fiction to have more than a passing resemblance to real history.