Christopher Buckley serves up slapstick political intrigue in ‘The Judge Hunter’

Samuel Pepys has a problem. The incessant diarist of the 17th century has successfully negotiated himself into a position of minor power in the Restoration government of King Charles II after having inconveniently supported Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads in the overthrow of Charles I. Life would be reasonably tolerable if not for his wife’s brother, Balthasar, a ne’er-do-well content to sponge off Pepys as a more appealing alternative to getting and keeping a job. If only Sam could find some way of getting Balty out of his life and his purse!

The answer to Pepys’ prayers, at least in the pages of Christopher Buckley’s latest satirical novel (Simon & Schuster, 2018), seems to come when he stumbles upon a plan to send Balty to the American Colonies on a vague quest to search for two judges who were responsible for condemning Charles I to execution. Once landed in the Massachusetts colony, Balty is taken under the wing of one Hiram Huncks, who is ostensibly going to help Balty find the judges but may have his own agenda.

Buckley is a master at historical satire, weaving comedic hijinks throughout an otherwise historically faithful account. Between yuks in The Judge Hunter, he delivers plenty of solid history about the founders of the American colonies, whether English or Dutch. The severe Puritans who founded the Massachusetts colony are reliably skewered, as are the even stricter sect that split for Connecticut when they thought Massachusetts was getting a little too loosey-goosey (narrator: they were not), and the Quakers who refused to renounce their faith despite severe persecution. I learned more about the second Anglo-Dutch War (truthfully, I’m not sure I even remembered there had been a first one) than I ever learned in school. “Excerpts” from Pepys’ famous diary are scattered throughout the narrative, and it was nice to have confirmation in the afterword that all but one or two were entirely made up. Too bad, because Buckley almost had me convinced to tackle the many-volumed classic work.

At the outset, I was concerned that Buckley was serving up too heavy a dose of slapstick, which would rapidly wear thin. Happily, as the plot progresses the characters acquire some more substantial traits than mere deliverers or receivers of punch lines, giving the overall work a pleasant depth.

The Judge Hunter is a worthy follow-up to Buckley’s first historical satire, The Relic Master, which set its skewed sights on the 16th century trade in saints’ remains. Buckley has stated his intention to continue the series with books set in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Based on past performance, those will be worth keeping an eye out for.

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