Doctor Dogbody’s Leg, by James Norman Hall
This almost unheard of book is one of my all-time favorites. As a land-locked cowboy, when my mind is troubled, I go down to the sea. The more romantic side of my nature has been lured by a few authors who saw fit to swash their buckles with a scalpel along with a sword, including C. S. Forrester, Patrick O’Brian, and Gabriel Sabatini. I suppose when they decided to make their heroes doctors, they wanted an erudite narrator who would be capable of uttering more comprehensible statements than “Argh… Shiver me timbers.” Whatever that means. I have to tell you, though that Doctor Dogbody’s Leg is the best.
I stumbled across this slim volume by James Hall, half of the Nordoff/Hall duo famous for the historic Bounty trilogy, in a used bookstore in Boston. The story of the author is as interesting as his novels. Hall, an American, fought in the trenches in World War I before the U.S. joined the war, then as an American fighter pilot—and was the commanding officer of the Hat-In-The-Ring Squadron with such luminaries as Eddie Rickenbacker. Hall explored the Pacific, island hopping on his own, finally settling in Fiji.
I suppose after producing some of the greatest sea-faring literature of our time, James Norman Hall decided to have a little fun later in life, and Doctor Dogbody’s Leg has made me laugh since I read the first chapter where the doc loses his ‘larboard’ leg to an American Indian’s cutlass. . . Then in another where he loses it to a French guillotine. . . And then again when he sacrifices it to the wolves in Russia in the service of Catherine the Great. . . Hmm, that would be three legs, wouldn’t it? Maybe I should explain—in ten chapters, Doctor F. Dogbody loses a leg a chapter, which probably qualifies the naval surgeon as either a human caterpillar or one of the great liars of all time. But after a night in mist-shrouded Plymouth and Will Tunn’s Cheerful Tortoise, repaired with a few old acquaintances from the Royal Naval, Dogbody (Imagine Baron Munchhausen, Harry Flashman and Horatio Hornblower all rolled into one) holds forth and it doesn’t matter if the stories are true or not, they’re just so good; like a bottle of good grog, you’ll find yourself metering each chapter out so that they last.