Hangman’s Beach

I bought Hangman’s Beach by Thomas H. Raddall when Mark and I visited Nova Scotia two years ago. During that trip Mark’s sister Patsy and her partner Jim took us on a boat trip to McNabs Island. The island, as well as the surrounding area including the Northwest Arm, Melville Island and Deadman’s Island serve as the settings for this novel, which was written in 1966. I am happy to have paid a visit to McNabs Island and to know the area around the Northwest Arm as it helped me grasp a sense of place that Raddall depicts. The title refers to a real-life location on the west of the island (known as Maugers Beach) where during the Napoleonic Wars delinquent sailors were hanged. Gibbets were erected on this beach and dead men were left to hang there, with their bodies only released from the nooses after they had decomposed. This phalanx of gibbets served as a warning to all sailors that insubordination of any kind would not be tolerated.

The novel tells a story about island inhabitant Peter McNab, his family and those that live with them. With such a gruesome sight of corpses hanging from gibbets (and the possible, but never mentioned, wafting odour of rotting flesh) to share one’s island home, the McNabs learn quickly to “look the other way” and despite having so much death on their doorstep they all avoid that part of the island. The action takes off when Ellen Dewar, a homely and shy ward of Peter meets and falls in love with Michel Cascamond, a prisoner-of-war who was apprehended for other crimes but tries to keep on the down-low the fact that it was he who shot and killed Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The action is slow at first–yet exciting nonetheless–and takes off after Cascamond assaults Dewar’s fiancé and leaves him for dead. Fearing that he will be executed, Cascamond steals a boat and flees, only to be captured and imprisoned on Melville Island. His adventures on the run and then scheming a prison break will keep you on your toes.

Hangman’s Beach was a compact paperback of 421 pages laid out in a small font. In spite of this unattractive appearance the book was a delight to read. I was thoroughly captivated by Raddall’s dialogue: he wrote all of what Peter McNab said in Scots, so I thank my knowledge of Scrabble vocabulary –which features such acceptable words as frae, guid, sae and tae, among others–for being able to easily understand it all. I could hear McNab’s voice as he spoke. The other characters spoke in what I considered realistic words–not any of this 200-year-old highfalutin dialogue between married people who never address each other by their first names–and Raddall did not shy away from writing about the sexual urges of sailors, which must have preoccupied their minds.

The novel, already secondhand with a cracked spine when I bought it, suffered during my recent Florida vacation where I finished reading it while suntanning on Miami Beach. In Key West I inadvertently set it down on a table with a wet surface, and then regrettably gave it a second dunking when I left it in the bottom of my backpack and piled something wet on top of it. I never intended to keep the book after I read it, and two people are eager to read it next (Mark is reading it now, and then I will give it to my library friend Rob). So this small $4.50 investment will see three readers and I now have a new author with multiple works to explore.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *