By Jessica Warner. McClelland & Stewart, 298 pp, $32.99, hardcover.
John Aitken was a lonely and hapless Scot from the slums of Edinburgh who set out to seek his fortune, only to find friendlessness and unemployment in the bleak streets of England. He travelled to America at a time when the 13 colonies were on the brink of revolution, then returned to England with the intent of destroying the Royal Navy's shipyards at Portsmouth and Bristol.
He almost succeeded.
Acting on instructions no more explicit than a nod and a wink from the dimwitted American envoy to Paris, Silas Deane, and motivated less by revolutionary commitment than by a desire to escape his dreary life of petty larceny and obscurity, Aitken embarked upon a plan to bring down the British Empire by the effect of his crudely designed incendiary devices.
The few fires Aitken managed to set had little effect on Britain's shipbuilding capacity, but they did rouse a paranoid frenzy among Britons that gives Jessica Warner's telling of his story some contemporary relevance in the light of circumstances prevailing in the United States.
"A nation lost its footing," Warner writes. "Reasonable people became unreasonably suspicious of the strangers in their midst. Conservative politicians exploited the crisis and attempted to prolong it, branding anyone who dared to oppose them as unpatriotic."
There was imprisonment without trial, and there were special jails where revolutionary suspects languished. Warner's brief description of Aitken's aftermath invites comparison to current American jitteriness, and its housing of suspected jihadists at Guantíƒ ¡namo Bay, but only just. Also, the book's subtitle suggests The Incendiary is at least partly about the origins of terrorism, and one might have expected Warner to pursue certain questions about terrorism in the context of Aitken's exploits.
She doesn't, but the book is no less satisfying for that. The story is a sufficiently dramatic one, and Warner's account, exhaustively researched, presents a particularly vivid portrait of Aitken and the desperate, cruel times in which he lived.