Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 7 March 2023)
Length: 349 pages
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The always compelling Anthony Hill returns with another highly detailed dive into Australian history with The Investigators, a fascinating and extensive read that focuses on a truly unique historical voyage.
Fans of Australian fiction will be well aware that there are a ton of outstanding authors out there at the moment who seem dedicated to exploring some of the more obscure or deeply interesting moments in colonial Australian history. Due to the attention these books get from Australian publishers I tend to read a few of these each year and I always appreciate the love these authors clearly have for the country’s history and their desire to set interesting stories about it. One of the more notable of these is Canberran author Anthony Hill, who has written several novels that cover different figures and events connected with the European settlers in Australia. I have enjoyed a couple of his books over the years, including last year’s intriguing read, The Last Convict, which told the life story of Australia’s last surviving convict. His new book, The Investigators, takes a new path as it focuses on a particularly noteworthy nautical voyage, that of Matthew Flinders and the HMS Investigator.
‘Our discoveries have been great, but the risks and misfortunes many.’
John Franklin always wanted to be a sailor. As a volunteer in the Royal Navy at age fourteen, he found himself in the Battle of Copenhagen, but nothing could prepare him for the adventure of a lifetime, when he set off in 1801 with his cousin Matthew Flinders on HMS Investigator as it sought to chart the first circumnavigation of Australia.
Taking on responsibility for the chronometers, under the jealous eye of Flinders’ younger brother, the young midshipman found all the action, adventure and excitement he’d hoped for in his new life at sea. It inspired him to become one of the great navigators and explorers of the 19th century.
However, he wasn’t quite so prepared for the other challenges that life onboard had in store – the rivalries with fellow shipmates, the shortages of food, and the harsh realities of what they encountered in the colonies. Danger, disease and death seemed to follow in their wake, and even the Investigator herself was at serious risk of destruction, having to flee to Koepang in present-day Indonesia for repair.
The history books tell us that the first circumnavigation of Australia was completed on this voyage – but award-winning and bestselling author Anthony Hill tells us how it was achieved. The Investigators is an unforgettable story of high adventure, exploration, shipwreck and survival as a young sailor comes of age.
This was a pretty interesting book from Hill that I personally had a great time getting through, even though I know it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. As you can tell from the plot synopsis, The Investigators tells the complete story of the HMS Investigator, under the command of Matthew Flinders, as it made its incredible journey to circumnavigate Australia, the first recorded voyage to do so. Told from the perspective of young midshipman, John Franklin, who himself goes on to become a notable captain and explorer, The Investigators covers the entirety of the voyage, including its delayed beginning and chaotic conclusion in extreme detail, focusing on every major occurrence that was recorded in the historical record.
Now, I must admit that this is a part of Australian history that I was not particularly familiar with, which is a shame, as it was pretty extraordinary. However, that is no longer the case, as Hill really goes out of his way to showcase the voyage in all its historical detail. No stone is left unturned as Hill takes the reader through the entire course of the voyage, and it proves to be extremely interesting to see just what the crew went through. The full extent of this journey is exceedingly fascinating, and while most of the voyage is focused on exploration and cartography, which is interesting in its own way, there are more exciting features such as disasters, deaths, feuds, politics, first contacts, starvation, disease, the French, and even a major shipwreck. This naturally results in quite the intense narrative, and I found myself hooked as I continued on trying to find out what happened throughout this voyage.
While the voyage of the HMS Investigator is pretty interesting, I will admit that Hill’s writing style was at times rather dry. This is mainly because he was determined to fit as much historic detail into his book as possible, and this often bogs down the flow the story. For portions of its run, The Investigators felt more like a non-fiction history book or a biography rather than a novel, especially when some of the sections are filled with substantial amounts of historical context or details about what future impacts certain events or discoveries would have. It also did not help that some of the dialogue was lifted from quotes in historical journals, all in the name of realism, which produced some of the clunkiest moments in the book. While Hill does try to mitigate this at times, such as by focusing the story on a young, eager character with his own exciting future rather than the complex captain on his most iconic voyage, it did get hard to get through the detail rich text at times. As such, this is going to be a harder novel for some readers to enjoy, especially if you were looking for an exciting story rather than a historical treatise. Still, I personally found it to be compelling and I loved how deep that Hill went into the events. The highly detailed examinations of everything, even day-to-day events on the ship or the many intricacies of exploration, proved to be quite fascinating, and I loved seeing absolutely everything that occurred on this voyage and Hill’s take on them.
Overall, The Investigators by Anthony Hill is an interesting and complex read that fans of Australian or nautical history are going to have an amazing time with. Hill really dives into this extraordinary tale out of history and readers come away with a complex appreciation for every single aspect of this epic trip. While Hill’s writing will probably not be for everyone, the sheer amount of history within is well worth the read and I had a great time learning more about the HMS Investigator. This will be a great book for those with a love of history.