CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 9. . . .November 4, 2016
Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling.
New York, NY: First Second/Roaring Brook Press (Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books), 2016 .
272 pp., trade pbk., $20.50.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling opens with Delilah’s trusty travel companion, Selim, sprinting nimbly up a stone road to the town of Ponte de Sor in Portugal. The year is 1809, and the Peninsular War is raging. Given the strategic importance of the Iberian peninsula, and the historic antipathy between the English and French, the British support Portugal. Selim is busy setting fire to some brush, creating a “distraction”, so that Delilah can perform “a favor for earnest, caring people”. (p. 3) Those caring people are the Agullo family, and the favor is to retrieve their grandson, Paulo, from the family’s villa and bring him to the safety of their country home. Of course, things never quite go as planned, and after a skirmish with the villa’s defenders, a bullet wound in Delilah’s left arm, and a daring escape across a burning bridge, Selim and Delilah, arrive with the boy to the delight of Paulo’s mother and grandparents.
Because of the civil unrest, the Agullos are leaving Portugal, and in gratitude for the return of their grandson, they offer Delilah the family estate. But Delilah’s intent on travelling to Spain. While on the road, Selim attempts to reason with Delilah, suggesting that they go north, instead of heading south, straight for the French-English conflict zone. A stop along the way to cool down with a swim leads to a unexpected encounter with a party of British soldiers and their leader, Major Jason Merrick, who concludes that Selim, “the Turk”, and Delilah must be French spies. Merrick decides to take them prisoners, but, as usual, Delilah doesn’t give up without a fight. However, a bullet injury gets the best of her, and she is captured and taken to the Major’s commanding officer, Phillip Merrick, Colonel Alderston, Jason’s father. The Colonel has all the charm, finesse, and intelligence that his son lacks, but he grudgingly concedes that the British army is currently broke, understaffed, and losing to the French: “I reveal these deficiencies in hopes of illuminating the circumstances which have put us in a position where his Army is unwilling to take even dubiously-substantiated risks. As such, I am forced to accept the Major’s accusations at face value.” (p. 64) Nevertheless, Colonel Alderston isn’t about to act hastily: Delilah is “an English civilian and a woman. It won’t do anything for morale, to say the least.” (p. 66) With his father’s final admonition to “shape up” ringing in his ears, the Major heads for Lisbon with Delilah in tow.
En route, the Major reads the report his father has written and learns that the Colonel “recommends leniency . . .” (p. 67) Furious, he comes up with his idea of a brilliant solution to the situation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, recruits to the British Army or Navy were paid a shilling; thus, “taking the King’s shilling” became synonymous with joining the forces. Merrick’s work-around for his father’s clemency is to unseat Delilah from her horse and drop a shilling coin down the bodice of her dress, forcing her to take the King’s shilling. Members of the British Army found guilty of espionage are punished by summary execution, and Merrick readies a gun. However, Selim suddenly appears and creates a new distraction, allowing the two to escape while Merrick and company are forced to deal with some French-allied cavalry. But why does Merrick call out to these apparent attackers, “Friends! Friends! We are friends to the French! General Thomiéres! He will vouch for me!”? (p. 72) Is it possible that it is Jason Merrick who is a spy, diverting attention by falsely accusing Delilah? Merrrick’s final words to her are insults, a vow to sully her name and her reputation throughout all of England, and possibly, Europe. Delilah is enraged and ready to avenge her reputation, and so, despite Selim’s earnest attempts to deter her, she tells him, “You’re getting your wish. We’re going to England, Mister Selim.” (p. 75)
After three weeks at sea and a brief stay in prison, the two jump aboard a coach and travel to Delilah’s family estate, Holloway. Arriving at the kitchen door (anyone who has watched Downton Abbey knows that this is the “back door” of an estate and family members always arrive at the front entrance), Delilah is reunited with her mother, who is both overwhelmed and overjoyed to see her “sweet Alexandra” (p. 97) again. Sweet Alexandra?? And, how does Delilah, sorry, Alexandra, explain Mr. Selim’s presence? Quick-witted as ever, she claims that he’s her driver, fully endorsed by her former governess as a more than suitable companion, providing security, given the danger of a woman’s travelling alone. This is a class-conscious society, but a cup of Mr. Selim’s nearly-magical tea ensures that he moves swiftly from temporary to full-time status in the household. As for Alexandra’s now-widowed mother, she has plenty of plans for her daughter, and they involve social calls, new dresses, in short, the day-to-day life of a well-off, highly eligible young British lady. Just the sort of empty life that Delilah had berated soundly in Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant.
However, Alexandra soon turns the situation to her advantage, using her mother’s “society friends” to find out everything she can about the Merrick family of Alderston. Dressed to the nines in a charming ensemble, complete with parasol, Alexandra and Mr. Selim (now attired as, and functioning as her footman) make a trip to London in order to undertake further fact-finding with her uncle, Sir Andrew Nichols, a member of the Horse Guards. Driving into the city, Mr. Selim is less than impressed with London; compared with Istanbul, “London’s candle didn’t seem to burn so much brighter.” (p. 121)
Interestingly, both Merrick and Alexandra are bent on defying their parents’ plans for them. Alexandra Nichols isn’t interested in “the lifeless existence of some cooped-up English lady”, (p. 131) and Lady Nichols is deeply disappointed in her daughter’s apparent lack of purpose. Lady Nichols insists that Alexandra be “kept indoors”, but her daughter escapes house arrest and has Selim drive to the Merrick family estate. After the usual parlour pleasantries, Alexandra and “Selim of Istanbul, Master Gardener” finagle a tour of the Alderston grounds and gardens. The garden tour ends abruptly – Alexandra hears the crack of gunfire and decides to interrupt Jason Merrick’s hunting party. Hiding in the bushes, watching the fire-power of these improvised barrel-bombs, they’re soon discovered, but Alexandra channels Delilah, and, of course, they escape, this time, to her uncle Andrew’s charming riverside cottage, the Mill.
Sir Andrew is the father that Alexandra no longer has, and he manages to convince her that she must take time off from being Delilah and try to be a daughter to her mother who truly loves her. On a walk down to the dock to see his new craft, the almost-completed Lilaea, he also offers some fatherly advice about Mr. Selim: “I like him, and you like him, and how often do either of us meet someone like that?” And, when Selim joins the two, he tells Sir Andrew about the barrel bombs. This surprises this highly-placed army officer, and he insists that the two stay in England rather than heading off to the continent. So, it’s back to English country life, and soon an invitation to a ball arrives. Learning that Merrick will be there, Alexandra’s eager to attend. Once there, gowned and gloved, she looks gorgeous, but bumping into other dancers and feeling clearly out of place with gangs of gossiping girls, it’s obvious that, as Delilah Dirk, she’s missed learning some of the social niceties of her class.
Merrick has come to the ball in hopes of persuading his lady-love, Jeanette Owens, to leave England with him for life in France. She refuses him, and then, in a reverse Cinderella moment, Merrick sees Alexandra and recognizes her as Delilah. It’s incredibly dramatic, and as Merrick leaves the room, he insults her one last time, just as Selim arrives with her swords, having expected a show-down with Merrick. In an incredible turn-about, Alexandra rages at Selim for having blown her cover, and now, for destroying her good name (as Alexandra Nichols) in front of everyone at the ball. Nevertheless, although always a gentleman, Selim makes it clear that her concerns about reputation are self-centred in the extreme, and that he isn’t about to develop a reputation for “tolerating selfish, stubborn women.” (p. 189)
From then on, the action picks up rapidly. Determined to uphold her reputation as Delilah Dirk, she rushes from the ballroom and has a six-page long battle with soldiers posted to guard the kitchen, but not before apologizing to Selim for her awful treatment of him. Selim’s in rough shape, in desperate need of medical help, but before going to Sir Andrew’s place, he explains the complexity of Merrick’s diabolical treachery and the peril faced by the thousands of Portugal-bound troops ready to board ships loaded with barrels branded as victuals, but actually packed with explosives. Delilah decides there’s only one thing to be done: with a flourish, she cuts the train off her ball gown and the two set off on a hair-raising chase to stop Jason Merrick’s mad plan to destroy the British war effort. The next 40 pages are an amazing tour de force of graphic art as readers watch Delilah catch up with Merrick, fight a pitched duel atop the carriage, pursue him to his camp, then to the Deptford docks, where Sir Andrew and Selim try to stop the launch of the troop ship. Merrick starts a fire on the docks, bombs explode, and both Selim and Delilah are nearly drowned when a boat blows up and sends them deep into the waters. Merrick is about to bayonet Selim when Delilah appears, saving Selim, and ending the fight by giving a weaponless Merrick the shilling he had forced upon her.
Alexandra recuperates at Sir Andrew’s, and in her convalescence, the rough spots in the mother-daughter relationship are smoothed over. The Lilaea is ready for its next adventure, and Sir Andrew will teach Mr. Selim everything he needs to know about being a ship’s master. As for Jason Merrick, he clearly deserves to pay for his treachery, but family connections make it possible that he may escape the punishment he deserves. Merrick returns to the field of battle, but British troops shun him as a traitor. Finally, caught by the French, he demands to be taken to General Thomiéres. In a brief but curt exchange, Thomiéres makes it clear that he has no need of a soft, useless aristocrat, and has one of his aides toss him from the room. It looks like it will be smooth sailing for Alexandra and Selim, but life on the run for Merrick.
Almost twice as long as Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, this work is much more complex. A reader doesn’t need to know many details of the Peninsular War, but a brief forward, explaining international alliances and setting a context would have been helpful. After a few years together, Selim and Delilah/Alexandra have developed a companionable relationship; Selim is a voice of reason and a good counterbalance to Delilah’s often impulsive, adventurous nature. In Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling, the class structures of 19th century aristocratic life provide a great deal more conflict; sometimes, Alexandra wants Selim to act as a servant and sometimes as a friend, and he’s often unsure as to which role is right for the situation. For that matter, so is she. He certainly asserts himself more in this work, doing his best to execute plans which, if they fail, are no fault of his. The parent-child friction experienced by both Delilah/Alexandra and Jason Merrick show may be grounded in 19th century social expectations, and yet, it’s also completely contemporary. As in Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Selim continues his courtly and sometimes convoluted speech, and Delilah/Alexandra sounds like any 20-something of our time. On first reading, I didn’t enjoy Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling as much as its predecessor, but it grew on me with a second reading.
As with Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling is a graphic novel for a capable reader, and the historical content might limit the audience somewhat. Still, the illustrations do an amazing job of moving the story along, and the action scenes (of which there are plenty) are cinematic, both visually and through the “sound effects” which Cliff adds to the frames. Now that readers have learned about the two sides of Delilah/Alexandra, depicted so powerfully on the cover of the book, it will be interesting to see if there is further adventure ahead for her and Selim.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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