The Last Cartridge by James W. Ryan. 280 pages. Trade Paperback. Copyright Xlibris Corp; 1 edition, 27 June 2000.
This book is the only work of historical fiction that I’m aware of featuring the Foreign Legion in Mexico and their epic stand at Camerone. It’s pretty hard to find on either eBay or Amazon. The author, James Ryan (with Rosemary Rohmer) also wrote a 144 page nonfiction history of the Battle of Camerone (Camerone: The French Foreign Legion’s Greatest Battle) and co authored a book on Eugene Bullard (The Black Swallow of Death: The Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, The World’s First Black Combat Aviator). Both of these books are as hard to find as The Last Cartridge. However, after reading this book I must conclude that the scarcity and high prices fetched for Ryan’s books is due to the limited publication runs and not because these are quality works or definitive histories. (Note: Camerone is available in Kindle format but be prepared to pay $79.00).
The Last Cartridge attempts to be a fictional adventure tale of rough and tumble legionnaires fighting it out against the Juaristas in central Mexico in 1863. Ryan concocted a literary device in the character of Owen Wilde, an Irish mercenary who has joined the Foreign Legion and now finds himself part of the fabled 3rd Company of the Foreign Legion Regiment. The tale is rich in historical detail about the campaign, weapons, and the Foreign Legion, French and Mexican forces. It does a good job using Wilde as your observer to unfolding events. However the first thing that stuck me odd was how Wilde, a former British officer as well as a Union officer in the Irish Brigade at Antietam, left the war in America, joined the Foreign Legion in Algeria, became an NCO and then is shipped to Mexico within the space of about six months. Antietam took place 17 September 1862 and Camerone 30 April 1863. I suppose I should have suspend my disbelief.
Wilde’s adventures with the Foreign Legion are well written and the chapters about the battle at Camerone were captivating. What failed to grab me however was a grafted on sub-plot involving a mysterious Irish countess which Wilde falls in love with and pursues throughout the book. In fact this plot takes over the whole book (for the worst) right after the fight at Camerone (where Wilde actually takes part in the last bayonet charge) and I had difficulty mustering up the effort to finish the book. But finish it I did and I’m now convinced that my youngest son could have written better. I can’t say that I was totally disappointed–I love reading anything about the Foreign Legion and much of this book was good, but about half of this story should have been re-written.
Which brings me to another point–maybe self-publishing is not a good idea if you skip quality control. There were many, many errors in the version I have. Grammatical problems, spelling mistakes as well as goofy dialogue faults abound. I can read past that for the most part if the story is good–but too much of this story was just plain bad. The overall impression is that this book was a half-assed effort which Ryan got self-published through the Xlibris Book Publishing company. It really, really needed more proof reading and honest feedback on plot and structure. One of the more egregious example of poor writing occurs when Owen Wilde finally gets into the pants of Lady Sidney Catherine de Winters–Countess of Clare. Reading this made me think I was reading some cheap hot pink and neon yellow covered porno paperback purchased off a wire rack at the downtown peepshow.
I was really looking forward to this book. It’s been on my shelf for a couple of years (found it on Amazon for $16.00) and I figured that with the 150th anniversary of Camerone coming up that I might as well get around to reading it. Kind of like saving an expensive bottle of wine for a special occasion. Only in this case the wine tasted pretty bad. I would not recommend this book to anyone and I’ll be damned if I’ll pay $80-150 for any of Ryan’s other books.