British writer's historical novels catching on in the United States

— You almost expect to hear the thunder of charging cavalry or the crackle of muskets as you approach Bernard Cornwell's house in this quiet Cape Cod town.

A British heavy cavalry sword hangs over the fireplace and a replica of a Baker rifle can be found high on a wall over a window.

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AP Photo

Author Bernard Cornwell poses at his home in Chatham, Mass. Cornwell's latest novel, "Sharpe's Havoc," released April 1, became his first novel to hit The New York Times best seller list.

But there are few other clues to suggest that this is the place where Cornwell crafts the adventures of Richard Sharpe, the hard-nosed but compassionate British soldier and hero of 19 historical novels set during the Napoleonic wars.

Long best sellers in Britain, where the Sharpe series was turned into a television series, Cornwell's books are only now beginning to take off in the United States.

The latest, "Sharpe's Havoc," became the first Cornwell novel to hit The New York Times best seller list. His previous novel, "Vagabond," set during The Hundred Years war in the mid-14th century, made The New York Times extended list.

Cornwell's popularity has grown so much on this side of the Atlantic that he is in the midst of his first U.S. tour to promote "Sharpe's Havoc." Americans, he says, are developing a taste for the genre -- fictional stories set against a background of historically accurate events.

"There is an appetite in the United States for historical novels," he says, leaning back in his chair, putting his feet up and lighting a cigarette. "I don't understand why an American author hasn't taken a man and told the Revolution or the Civil War through his eyes."

'Fun, major fun'

The success of the Sharpe novels is easy to pinpoint, Cornwell says: There simply is not much out there like it.

"I've always found it odd that there are about five series of books out there about Royal Navy officers, then there is just me writing the Army side of things," says Cornwell, who has written 37 books.

One of those naval officers -- Horatio Hornblower -- is the inspiration for Sharpe, and Cornwell makes no secret of the fact.

Cornwell, 59, grew up in England a member of a strict cult called the Peculiar People who did not allow any form of entertainment, including books. At age 10, Cornwell was beaten for reading "Treasure Island." By the time he discovered C.S. Forester's Hornblower books, the Peculiar People had given up on him.

"Sharpe is just a rip off of Hornblower -- he's Hornblower on land," he says.

By reading Hornblower, Cornwell developed an interest in the Napoleonic era and now has what he calls "a filthy knowledge" of the period.

He used to look for the army equivalent of Hornblower, but could never find it in his searches of bookshops. So he wrote it himself.

He also started writing for another reason: It was all he could do. When he first moved to the United States with his American wife, Judith, he did not have a work permit.

After a career as a journalist that included a stint as current affairs editor for the BBC in Northern Ireland, he wrote his first book, "Sharpe's Eagle," in 1980 at age 36. After a serendipitous meeting with a reluctant literary agent at the New York City home of a mutual friend, it was published the next year.

Sharpe has become so popular that he has his own fan club -- The Sharpe Appreciation Society. The group has about 1,400 members worldwide, including a growing number of Americans, said founder and secretary Chris Clarke.

"Sharpe is just fun, major fun," she says. "If I pick one of his books up, I just can't put it down. His stories go at a terrific pace. You feel as if you are there. He's descriptive, he's creative and he keeps you interested."

The self-deprecating Cornwell -- an American citizen now after 23 years in the United States -- wants his novels to be fun. He wants them to entertain. He wants the reader to enjoy. And if the reader gets interested in a little history in the process and wants to learn more from what he calls the "real historians," then all the better.

Nineteen and counting

That's what happened to Beth Callaway of Pine Mountain, Ga., one of about 100 American members of the Sharpe Appreciation Society.

"I knew very little about the Napoleonic era, but I've always been a history nut, and the Sharpe TV shows pulled me in," says Callaway, whose husband, Cason, is also a Cornwell fan. And, Callaway points out, the books have the classic literary elements of good versus evil, honor, chivalry, and they feature a man from humble beginnings (Sharpe is an orphan) climbing to a position of command.

"Sharpe's Havoc" stays true to the formula. Set in 1809 during the French invasion of Portugal, Sharpe and his riflemen find themselves cut off from the British army while under orders to find the missing teenage daughter of a wealthy British wine merchant.

The Greenjackets join with a unit of Portuguese soldiers led by a young and idealistic officer who is shocked by Sharpe's brutality, but who turns out to be a loyal ally as the group battles French light infantry and dragoons.

The fate of Sharpe's troops is held in the balance by a devious British diplomat playing both sides in the war in an effort to enrich himself.

Cornwell is already working on the 20th installment of the Sharpe series. "I know Sharpe. It's incredibly easy to write. I know exactly what he'll say in what situation."

He also knows one day there will be no more promotions for Sharpe, no more battles to be fought. "I'm running out of Napoleonic history, to be honest," he said.

But he's not running out of ideas. "There is no shortage of material out there."

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