Hangman’s Cliff, originally published in 1956, was Robert Neill’s fifth novel in only six years which, given the extensive research that went into confirming the authenticity of each book, and maintaining the atmosphere proper to each period, is quite astonishing. None of the novels show any sense of strain, any signs of rushing, and the volume of information Neill has absorbed to ensure the implicit believability of the times never breaks through the course of the story.
After the three Stuart era novels, Neill moves to a much later period, and one in which the political background to the times, whilst pertinent, does not direct or influence the story, and is no more than an additional detail. Without an obligation to explain a specific period to us, Neill can concentrate solely upon a thrilling story, and the traditional romantic element, of course.
Thus, after two chapters designed to introduce us to Captain William Appleton and, more importantly, his 17 year old daughter Margaret, the action gets under way with a literal bang, and doesn’t cease for the remainder of this book’s 384 pages – making it Neill’s longest novel to date.
The time is March 1782 and the place is the Kent coast, between Deal and Dover: the Smuggler’s Coast. The Captain has been paid off his last command and, having gotten on the wrong side of the Admiralty Board, foresees no route back to sea. Fortuitously, he has inherited this cottage from his late Uncle Roger, a controversial, indeed ‘black sheep’ member of his family. Withdrawing Margaret from Miss Akerman’s Boarding School, to manage his household, the Captain makes a leisurely journey to his new home, only to arrive to two bombshells.
The first is that Uncle Roger was murdered, the second is a sea-battle, just off the cliffs, between the Revenue and its cutter, Caroline, and the smugglers.
Between the circumstances of their arrival, and the Captain’s expertise and sense of duty, the Appleton’s find themselves allied to the Revenuers, an unwelcome, if not positively unwise, choice of sides in a remote area where the whole of the local economy depends upon smuggling, and where there is a well-organised and very dangerous band of men running this industry, ruthlessly.
What makes matters worse is that, as more is discovered of the late Roger Appleton, it becomes plainer and plainer that he was the organiser of the smuggling until the pistol ball in the back that led to his loss. And that brings into question who was responsible for this pistol ball: a decaying corpse swings from a gibbet outside the Appleton’s cottage, adding that little something to the sea-views, but as the local courier Tom Thorn is soon perceived as the new commander of activities, it is to be questioned whether Justice has been served, or merely placated?
It should be mentioned that there is more to this story than the simple opposition of Revenue and Smugglers. At this time, England is at War with her old neighbour and rival, France, a war being conducted in the American colonies (where it has been lost) and the West Indies (where it is merely being lost). Trading with the enemy takes on a treasonous aspect, in two ways: the smugglers are not only providing gold to an enemy nation in desperate need of funds to maintain war against England, but the Smugglers Coast is also a conduit through which French spies pass.
I speak of the Appletons, but the bulk of the story falls upon the young, inexperienced figure of Margaret. To an extent greater even than Margery in Mist over Pendle (though less memorably), it is she who sees more of events and who teases out implications and outcomes. Both girls show a cool wit in matters beyond their experience and schooling, and both show depths of intelligence and, in Margaret’s case, calmness in the face of personal danger, to an extent that is unexpected, perhaps even improbable.
And whereas Margery at all times has the protection of Roger Nowell, as well as the goodwill of half of Pendle, Margaret is left alone in the middle of the story, her father summoned to London where, in the face of the news that the Government is about to fall and a new Admiralty Board to be formed, the prospect of command is once more opened up.
It’s in this interval that another William Appleton abruptly appears. This new and younger one goes by the name of Will and, though he’s sought by the law as a French spy, he is instead carrying letters from the American government to contacts in England: though technically no less a spy, his mission is implied to be aimed at negotiating peace.
Will is Uncle Roger’s grandson and confidant, and is shocked and angry to learn that Roger is dead, and especially so as to the manner of the old man’s death. In due course, he makes friends with his cousin the Captain, despite an initial enmity, whilst his opinion of his other cousin, Margaret, is somewhat other than cousinly.
Oddly, by the standards of Neill’s other romances, Margaret is more cool towards Will than any other protagonist towards his or her love. This is not to say that she is cold towards him, nor that she makes any attempt to resist being kissed, but this is one affair where the central character is caught up far more in the plot than the relief.
By the time Will returns from delivering his letters in London, to take up open residence as a guest of his new relations, Neill has established a complex web of imperatives, with strange alliances being made to further a range of not-incompatible ends, all of which centre upon the figure of the sociopathic Tom Thorn and the threat he represents to almost everybody else.
Hangman’s Cliff is a confident and complex thriller, and it achieves its stated purpose – to reflect the reality of Eighteenth Century smuggling and not its romantic fallacy – with ease. Though the good guys come out on top, and the bad folk go to the devil, the lines are refreshingly blurred as to who and what are good and bad. Furthermore, nothing is changed except individual’s lives. Smuggling isn’t defeated, nor the French frustrated. There’s no suggestion than that, after some necessary regrouping, and the discovery of a new leader, the trade will not resume.
But Neill is indeed successful in exploding the popular, romantic, but essentially false myth of the the jolly, open-hearted Smuggler, engaged in what was no more than a game with the black-hearted, joyless, cold Revenue.
It’s an image born of too much Doctor Syn, too many cheap and fanciful romances and Hollywood B-pictures. Neill, drawing extensively on historical records, was intent on showing the Smugglers as what they were: dangerous, vicious and ruthless men intent upon profit, careless of their country’s needs in time of war, willing to bully, brutalise and kill those who stood between them and their money.
All of this is laid bare in another, typically erudite, novel, and one in which the willingness to accept lawbreaking as something other than the cause for damnation marks a new sophistication in Neill’s writing.
Just as Hangman’s Cliff moved away from Neill’s early fascination with the Seventeenth Century, so too would his next novel would continue that trend by moving firmly into the Nineteenth Century, to the brink of the Victorian era, and to a time of great social change among working class folk.