Review by Frank Plowright
Nathan Hale launched his successful series of historical graphic novels with a look at his namesake, America’s most famous spy, beginning with a fanciful fictionalised section where at the point of his death Hale is talking with his hangman. The pair are swallowed by a massive magical book that appears above them and shows them the future, Hale absorbing the contents and able to face his death knowing he’s been immortalised in history. Then we learn his story.
Hale the author doesn’t gloss over the mistakes made by Hale the spy, conceding early that his fame rests more as a martyr inspired to contrive notable final words than on the success of his mission, but this is far more than Hale’s story. We’re presented with the American War of Independence from its faltering start to successful conclusion, the important skirmishes and battles supplied in comprehensible fashion via clear cartooning, and diagrams when required. Anyone who fell asleep during their school history classes could do far worse than catch up as an adult, but the young audience at whom this is aimed will be able to take everything in painlessly.
In 1769 the future spy attended Yale University aged fourteen, in a country firmly under British control. Leading up to Hale’s prominence, we learn the circumstances that engendered resentment among those living in what would become the USA to rise up against the British army, and about key early battles. Hale himself was a teenage teacher when he joined the Connecticut Militia, and rapidly rose to become a Captain, but his story is really only a bit part during the course of learning just how Americans threw off the rule of the British king. In history classes we learn about George Washington’s leadership, and those studying a bit further may learn of Benedict Arnold, Bunker Hill and crossing the Potomac, but it’s only historians who’ll be familiar with much of the content. Henry Knox, bookstore owner, deserves to be more widely known for the ingenuity of his method solving the problem of crossing ice that cracked underfoot.
In later books having Hale and his companions commenting on events proves awkward and sometimes misguided, but here their interjections are pitched just right, having a reliable purpose and serving well as interludes between what might otherwise become dry facts. As noted, the best spies are those whose names we never know, and Hale is known, but that cursory judgement belies his successes before spying, notably commanding a mission in which a few troops stole a British supply ship. Bear in mind Hale was only 21 when hung, which might also go some way to explaining his naivety when sent on his ultimately fatal spying mission.
For someone whose research on this and later books is so thorough, Hale makes the common error of considering Great Britain and England to be synonymous, but overlook that, as the remainder is first rate. There’s too much to tell of the campaign that finished with the USA becoming a free nation, so more is promised, although with seven further books to his name to date, Hale has yet to return to the War of Independence. His next book looks at the US Civil War in Big, Bad, Ironclad.
One Dead Spy can also be found combined with two later books as the first Hazardous Tales Box Set.