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'Blind Justice', the first novel featuring legendary eighteenth-century London judge Sir John Fielding, was one of the most highly acclaimed mystery debuts of 1994. 'Murder in Grub Street', the second novel, was named by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Notable Books of 1995 in crime fiction. Now Fielding returns in his most baffling case yet.

John Fielding was famous not only as co-founder of London's first police force, the Bow Street Runners, but also as a magistrate of keen intellect, fairness and uncommon detective ability. When a crime was committed, he often took it upon himself to solve it. What made this all the more remarkable was that he was blind.

In 'Watery Grave'. accompanied by his "eyes" (and the series' narrator), young Jeremy Proctor, Fielding encounters a case that hits close to home, as a stepson returns from the high seas with tales of typhoons and a captain overboard. Was it an accident, or was it murder? Fielding is asked to investigate, but discovers considerably more than he'd bargained for - including some secrets that might better have been left at the bottom of a watery grave.

Filled with the authentic sights and sounds and atmosphere of the times, and with a supremely colorful and varied cast of characters, 'Watery Grave' is in every way a delight to read.

378 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published September 24, 1996

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About the author

Bruce Alexander

42 books115 followers
Pseudonym of American journalist and author Bruce Cook.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

Bruce Alexander Cook (1932–2003) was an American journalist and author who wrote under the pseudonym Bruce Alexander, creating historical novels about a blind 18th century Englishman and also a 20th century Mexican-American detective.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 75 reviews
Profile Image for Paul Weiss.
1,250 reviews232 followers
January 13, 2023
The rough justice of the 18th century British navy!

In 1767 off the shore of Cape of Good Hope, the crew of British naval frigate HMS Adventure encountered what, to them, must have seemed the typhoon of the century. At the height of the powerful storm, despite Lieutenant William Landon's futile rescue attempt, Captain Josiah Markham is swept off the poop deck and overboard to his death. Fully seven months later, when the Adventure returns to London, Landon is astonished to find himself accused of murder by acting Captain James Hartsell and facing execution by hanging if he is found guilty at a court martial. When Vice-Admiral Robert Redmond, who happens to be Landon's uncle, is ordered by the British navy to preside over the court martial, he asks his friend of long acquaintance, blind magistrate Sir John Fielding to turn his formidable intellect to the investigation and to help clear his nephew's name. With the assistance of his protégé, a wide-eyed but quickly maturing 14 year old Jeremy Proctor, and his step-son, Thomas Durham, freshly returned from his two year assignment aboard the Adventure, Fielding investigates the alleged murder.

As Fielding, Proctor and Durham search for clues and witnesses in the haunts of the seamen on shore leave from the Adventure - the dimly lit brothels and filthy bars and gaming establishments that dot the seedy docks in the Tower Wharf district along side the Thames - they run into a string of reluctant witnesses, inconsistent stories of the events on the night of the storm, subsequent murders and the tortuous workings of a maritime and naval justice system apparently intent on bringing in a pre-ordained verdict of "guilty" against the accused.

Despite being an easy-reading lightweight historical mystery set in Georgian England, WATERY GRAVE is definitely not a cozy mystery in the style of Agatha Christie or Susan Wittig Albert. A graphic and gritty portrayal of the rough side of 18th century London, WATERY GRAVE will treat its readers to extraordinary characterization and atmospheric embellishment that brings people, time and place to life with a sparkling vitality and a sense of realism that can hardly be rivaled - the slums, the prisons, the docks, pubs, outdoor markets, upstairs, downstairs, courts, gaming houses, bordellos, street walkers, pickpockets, scamps, cut purses and thieves. Despite being a primarily land-locked investigation, the story also provides us with a colourful but up close, down and dirty examination of brutal ship board life for the seamen in the British navy of the day.

And that ending ... what can one say? Entirely unexpected but, frankly, the icing on the cake as far as the depiction of the reality of the day is concerned!

WATERY GRAVE, preceded by BLIND JUSTICE and MURDER IN GRUB STREET is the third entry in Alexander's highly successful Sir John Fielding series. While it does stand alone as a satisfactory mystery, readers will derive the most enjoyment if they dig into the series from the start so they can revel in Alexander's wonderful multi-story character development as well as the mystery. Up next, Person or Persons Unknown.

Highly recommended.

Paul Weiss
Profile Image for Christopher Taylor.
Author 10 books73 followers
November 21, 2021
As of this book I have now read the entire John Fielding mysteries series, out of order. The characterizations are very fine, the various elements of the mystery well woven, the legalities and complexities of the legal system from the time fascinating, and most of all the events not only ring true but are very engaging.

Jeremy Proctor continues to be a bit of a Mary Sue (everyone likes him, he's stronger than most, smarter than most, more skillful than most, always seems to know what to say etc) but that is countered by his self deprecation as he narrates the story, his level of ignorance and naivete about life, and his well-depicted youth.

This story covers a mystery involving the British Royal Navy which through its later years became such an institution that many horrors committed in its name in order to defend England were overlooked or ignored for the sake of national survival. For England to endure as a small island nation, it had to have a powerful, unquestioned navy, which led to serious abuses and injustices.

Sailors were little more than slaves, the "impress" system was little more than slave raids on the English coasts, captains were virtually above any criticism or judicial reach, and more. And all had reasonable bases: the ships were inevitably undermanned, they were needed to protect the island, captains had to be absolute in their authority while at sea... but bad things were done nevertheless. This book looks at these problems and their reasons with a clear and objective eye, finding much both to love and be troubled by in the Navy.

Oh, and one more thing: it tells the story of how Sir John Fielding lost his eyesight.

Upon re-reading I find that the book doesn't hold up as well as I originally believed, but is still quite fine. There are some errors in how it depicts the Navy (beahvior of officers toward an admiral, a press gang out during peace time as ships are being decommissioned, for example), and the story uses one of my least favorite mystery tropes: the necessary witness that the detective simply doesn't bother to look for or is informed about much later than makes sense, and then due to repeated intervention doesn't get to in time.

But overall, this is a well-written and enjoyable tale, if a bit sad.
Profile Image for Eva Müller.
Author 1 book73 followers
January 25, 2020
This feels more like a historical novel where the main character happens to solve a crime than a 'true' historical mystery. The historical detail is quite extensive (and, if I'm honest when it came to the finer points of the working of the legal system, a bit overwhelming...I just really don't care about that) and more importantly: there wasn't that much of a mystery. Fielding investigates the case of a young man who has been accused of murder by one of his comrades. There's no mystery in the question Did he really do it? because it is quite clear that the reader is supposed to trust Fielding who has faith in the young man. So the next question is Why is the other person accusing him? and that also becomes clear quite quickly. At least to the reader, not so much to Jeremy, the narrator. Though it does make perfect sense that he doesn't understand what is going on. Additionally, there's enough other stuff going on in the plot that Jeremy doesn't constantly wonder what he's missing; and so the reader doesn't have to constantly sigh about his ignorance. But still: not a big mystery.

That leaves the question of if and how they can prove the suspect's innocence and well...that's also not the most thrilling story. Partly because if you boil it down to the essentials, it's not the most original tale and partly because the chapter-titles are like Friends-episodes and are for example called "In which we find our witness and lose him again". Wow. I wonder what will happen here.

Additionally so I'm back to my first point: this is more historical than mystery and I didn't care too much about the historical detail that was gone into. But, glancing over the reviews, it seems that this book is a bit of an outlier in the series, so perhaps I'll give the series another try one day.
Profile Image for Chris Zable.
388 reviews17 followers
August 27, 2022
4.5 rounded up.

A navy lieutenant is going to be court-martialed for pushing his captain overboard but claims he was trying to grab him and keep him aboard. An admiral asks Sir John to help figure out what really happened. He does so, but in the navy his role as magistrate gives him no authority at all. The push and pull between the civil and the military, the ship and the shore, is excellently done. The mystery is compelling and I literally gasped multiple times as the action unfolded. Jeremy continues to be a fascinating narrator, both observant and naive. All in all a terrific read.
Profile Image for ☕Laura.
524 reviews137 followers
April 18, 2019
Ratings (1 to 5)
Writing: 4
Story: 4
Characters: 4
Emotional impact: 3
Overall rating: 3.75
Profile Image for Gerry.
Author 42 books96 followers
July 17, 2013
The blind Sir John Fielding has his assistant young Jeremy Protor to assist him in his investigations into various crimes and in this, the third novel in the Fielding series, he is asked to investigate the death of a ship's captain while on the high seas.

The captain was constantly ill, and regularly drinking and was therefore confined to his cabin. Another member of the crew took on the role of acting captain and it was he who made the accusation that another crew member had pushed the captain overboard while the ship was in the eye of a storm. But it took him until the ship was very nearly docking in London to make the accusation and that was almost a year after the incident took place.

Sir John Fielding was therefore recruited to find out the truth. He makes his way round eighteenth-century London, admirably described by the author, ably assisted by young Proctor. But, sometimes hindered by the naval personnel who recruited him, what he discovers is something of a surprise and leads him into all sorts of highways, byways and intrigues.

The officer accused of the crime is jailed but Fielding visits him and hears his story; there is a trial and the offender is sentenced. However, Fielding is not convinced by the verdict so he continues to search out evidence. And something most surprising is uncovered as more evidence comes out ... however, is it too late to save the officer accused? And what would then happen to the acting captain?

'Watery Grave' is a novel with a twist and the action is always swift and constant, making it a most enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Tara.
98 reviews1 follower
May 26, 2013
Beware of uber-spoilers about the ending:

Profile Image for Géraldine.
526 reviews11 followers
August 19, 2019
Great book. Mysteries and investigations by a blind judge and his adoptive young boy in the 18th century in London. I liked the story mixed with the fact of History. (My second book of "Sir John" serie)
2,102 reviews31 followers
December 12, 2019
This was about loyalty and justice. The Acting Captain of the HMS Adventure lodged a belated court martial inquiry against his First Officer, a well~loved and well~respected man specially by the ordinary sailors aboard the Adventure, unlike the Acting Captain. And although the Acting Captain was promoted to Captain... in the end, he still hanged with the one he accused. Sir John and Jeremy wanted justice done for the accused but the Royal Navy or those of the highest echelon who represent the institution have a different agenda ~ to protect the reputation of the Royal Navy at the expense of the accused whose life must be sacrificed... and since the court martial was a naval concern and Sir John's role was to advise his Rear Admiral friend but given what he and Jeremy already know about the case, Sir John arranged things in such a way that the culprits would be made to commit a crime in London to be under his jurisdiction... a masterful maneuver in his battle against this particular crime and a sop to appease his great disappointment of the institution he once served and while in service to it, he lost his sight.
Profile Image for Carol.
40 reviews1 follower
May 12, 2020
As with other Bruce Alexander novels I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
It was fun to read,coming from a family with a naval history, I especially enjoyed the nautical theme.

I am normally a fast reader,however Mr Alexander using the dialog of the period,I have to discipline myself to slow down and see each word,it is worth it!
The way Jeremy occasionally addresses the reader makes one feel as if he is there talking to you in person.
A great adventure story,a few chuckles,great historical characters as well as an easily imagined mid 18th century London setting.Doesn't get much better than this.
Profile Image for Rick Rapp.
655 reviews3 followers
March 15, 2021
This tale of murder(s) and deceit by Alexander is well-written as usual. It is disappointing, however realistic, that an innocent man had to be sacrificed. (The whole story is quite reminiscent of Melville's Billy Budd.) The twists and unexpected occurrences were worthy of Alexander, They built suitable tension. Alexander uses this platform to point to abuses in power and lofty organizations in order to perpetuate the myth of their infallibility. Disgusting, yes, but true to life, and unfortunately still at play in today's world. Protecting vice in the guise of protecting something far worthier, shows the shallowness in the alleged worth.
Profile Image for Dennis Fischman.
1,457 reviews33 followers
July 3, 2021
A really good historical novel, with insights into the British navy and justice system and very realistic discussions of what it's like to be a teenager in a violent time. The women in the book are nearly one-dimensional (hooker turned cook with a heart of gold, maternal lady), and while the attitudes toward male homosexuality are as liberal as they can be for the time and place, they still strike me as repulsive. The non-sexual relations between men in this book are first rate, and the twists and turns on the way to seeking justice for an unfairly accused man kept me reading all day to find out what would happen next.
Profile Image for Irene B..
251 reviews1 follower
June 23, 2019
Another interesting perspective on the mid-18th century. I enjoy the way the author inserts details about the period; in this novel, about the original intent of the "riot act". This is a sadder plot than usual, dealing with corruption in the 18th C. Royal Navy and the meaning of loyalty to an oppressive system.
Profile Image for Sandy Shin.
141 reviews3 followers
May 30, 2017
The tird Sir John Fielding book deals with the special case of the British Navy and the lengths taken to make sure the Navy's public face eas not besmirched. A harder read because of the injustice done is so disappointing, but still a book I enjoyed.
142 reviews
August 2, 2019
Another excellent tale of Sir John Fielding, a blind magistrate in 1760’s London. This one involves murder and the Royal Navy. The characters and description of London at the time draw the reader immediately into life at that time. 4 1/2 stars
Profile Image for Carolyn Rose.
Author 39 books200 followers
May 7, 2020
Interesting slice of time and place. Don't expect a happy Hollywood ending. This is harsh indictment of British naval "justice" at the time and of the secrets and failings of those with rank and privilege.
Profile Image for Jack.
714 reviews
August 4, 2020
A murder and scandal in the Royal Navy create confusion and concern for Sir John Fielding and Jeremy in this third installment of the historical mysteries. As with any historical novel, there is always something to learn and I read about the origins of "reading the riot act". Always a good read.
Profile Image for Kirsten.
963 reviews6 followers
March 12, 2022
Always good to have my horror of press gangs reaffirmed. I do think that there should have been another discussion in editing of what language to include; historical accuracy can be a consideration but you should also consider modern readers.
819 reviews2 followers
May 13, 2021
Sir John Fielding faces a challenge when he goes head to head with naval powers. Although he can't save a innocent, he makes sure the guilty also hang.
2,001 reviews11 followers
December 6, 2013
This is the third book in the Sir John Fielding series.
It is about a year since the events of the last book, Murder on Grub Street. Jeremy Proctor is now 14 years old and settled in the home of Sir John who is married to the second Lady Fielding. Tom Durham, Lady Fielding's son has arrived after spending two years at sea aboard Her Majesty’s frigate the Adventure and is heartily welcomed home. But when the crew arrives in Tower Wharf we learn there is a senior officer who has been accused of murder and is in the brig awaiting court martial. Vice Admiral Robert Redmond, a friend of Sir John’s has asked him to assist in the investigation before the trial. The murder is that of the former Captain Josiah Markham, who was either pushed or fell overboard during a wicked storm. The man accused of the crime is Lieutenant Langdon who is well liked and respected and the accuser is the less popular Lieutenant Hartsell who was acting captain at the time of the event. Langdon says he was trying to save the captain by pulling him back in the boat; Hartsell said Langdon pushed him overboard.
What is puzzling is that no one on board knew a crime had been committed as it was several months after the event and just before they landed in London that the charges were laid and the crew were informed. As the plot unfolds there are many other troubling issues: Why are the witnesses so wary and reluctant to testify and why are their stories so inconsistent? Why are members of the crew being murdered? Why is Sir Robert who hired Sir John hampering the investigation?
Sir John brings his formidable skills to these questions and is heartily disappointed in his findings. He learns the Royal Navy is a law unto itself, a country all its own in which the ordinary rules of conduct and procedure do not apply.
Several characters from other books make another appearance including Black Jack Bilbo and Jimmie Bunkins and the core characters continue to develop.
This is not a complex mystery that you try to figure out as you read. You already know the murderer, but you do want to see how that all unfolds.
One disappointment is the lack of courtroom drama. After the tiring hunt for witnesses and the astute questioning of suspects, we are not carried through to what would have been some interesting trial scenes. They are dealt with rather quickly at the end and that was a bit disappointing.
However, what continues is the detailed descriptions of life at this time in London. We are not spared the squalid streets infested with scoundrels or the drunks vomiting at the side of the road. It all adds to the colorful story.
We do learn how Sir Fielding lost his sight and it is an interesting story.
This is a good read about flawed loyalties and family ties and friendships that are tested.
261 reviews7 followers
May 28, 2011
Bruce Alexander (like Elliot Roosevelt and Stephanie Barron) takes his detective from real life. This time, it is Sir John Fielding, the famous London Magistrate known as the "Blind Beak." His Watson is Jeremy Proctor, a young orphan Sir John has taken under his wing.

In Watery Grave, the third of the series, Sir John is approached by his old friend Sir Robert Redmond, currently Lord High Admiral of the British Royal Navy. His nephew, John Landon is an officer on the HMS Adventure and has been accused of murdering his captain. During a raging storm, the captain fell overboard and the question is: was Landon pushing him, or trying to save him? If found guilty, he will be hanged. Sir Robert begs Sir John to save him. Compounding the situation is that Sir John's stepson, Tom, is also serving aboard the Adventure and has hopes of becoming a midshipman.

As Sir John and Jeremy dig deeper into the mystery, it becomes apparent that all involved know the truth, but none are willing to reveal it - including Sir Robert. Watery Grave is not so much a mystery as a story of investigation. The true villain, solution, etc., is apparent to both the reader and the detective, very early on. The main bulk of story concerns finding and interviewing witnesses, collection evidence, and preparing a case. The blatantly ambiguous ending mixes injustice and justice, and is too obviously meant to be "realistic." I suppose I did not really mind it, though.

The story flows smoothly, but there are few parts, while serving to illustrate 18th century life, serve little narrative purpose. Specifically, I am thinking of an episode where young Jeremy is almost "drafted" into the British Navy. While this illuminating as to certain barbaric practices of the time, it is unnecessary to the story and sounds suspiciously like a sermon.

Curious as to the historical details, I have read several other reviews online. One reviewer was a legal historian and commended the accurate legal details. Another was a naval historian, and condemned the inaccurate naval details. They both sounded convincing.

I do not have much to say about the characters. Jeremy is an appealing Watson/narrator, and Sir John appropriately reserved and intellectual. They have a dynamic not unlike Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin. The others are a bit two-dimensional and some seem only included for "local color." Bruce Alexander, like many other historical fiction authors, is OBSESSED with prostitutes.

Can this book stand on its own? Yes, usually. While there are numerous references to earlier works, most do not interfere with the story. On the whole, it was an interesting, mostly well written book and I enjoyed reading it.
Profile Image for Carl.
578 reviews1 follower
September 7, 2016
“Watery Grave” is certainly one of the better historical mystery series I have read in the past 20 years. (Thanks Mary!) “Murder in Grub Street,” the second of the Sir John Fielding mysteries, was named by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Notable Books of 1995 in crime fiction. Now in “Watery Grave,” Sir John Fielding returns in one of his most perplexing cases yet, both for Fielding and the reader. Another intriguing aspect of Bruce Alexander’s historical series is that his main character, Sir John, is based on an actual historical person. Sir John really lived from 1721-1780, and he was a blind Bow Street Magistrate who developed London’s first police force – the Bow Street Runners. Additionally, his brother was the noted author, Henry Fielding of “Tom Jones” fame. Note that one does not have to read the first or the second book to understand the events of “Watery Grave”; however, to fully understand the characters and how they have changed and evolved, it is better to read them in order.

Once again, our narrator is 14-year-old Jeremy Proctor, who works as an apprentice to the magistrate. “Watery Grave” seems to involve a murder committed on board a ship during a storm; the charges seem cut and dry. Sir John Fielding, a friend of the Admiral, is asked to help in the naval inquiry involving this murder on the high seas. The subsequent investigation turns up inconsistencies, apparent corruption, lies and deceit, and throws the Royal Navy’s justice system against that of the land-based legal system. So the reader is left wondering: “What is the truth?” One additional interesting tidbit from this book is that the reader is told how Fielding lost his sight when he was a sailor.

“Watery Grave” unravels at a pace that is easy to follow, but keeps the reader involved and interested in the story. The historical details seem realistic to the period, including the Royal Navy’s almost “blind” approach to justice (Officers – right or wrong). Contributing to the realistic local color is Bruce Alexander's language, which is rich and suggestive of the times. I really enjoyed “Watery Grave,” and I am captivated by Alexander’s characters and how they have grown and evolved in the series. This is one of the best historical mystery series I have read; I strongly recommend that one starts with “Blind Justice” if you have not read any before.

Profile Image for Brandy Painter.
1,632 reviews251 followers
December 11, 2010
From a review originally posted here.

Watery Grave takes a place a little over a year after Murder ends. Jeremy is now a settled member of the Fielding home. Sir John has remarried and the new Lady Fielding is welcoming home her son, Tom, who has been aboard ship in the Navy for the past three years. The ship he crews has come into port with a scandal and an old Admiral friend of Sir John's asks him to help in the investigation. The Captain of the ship went overboard during a storm and the First Lieutenant, now acting Captain, has accused the Second Lieutenant of pushing him over. The crew is not too happy about this as they far prefer the Second Lieutenant to the First. In the course of his investigation Sir John uncovers the nastier side of His Majesty's Navy.

This is a really sad story. There is a lot of disillusionment experienced by the characters and the end was a bit depressing. I liked this realistic aspect and thought the author concluded it well. Jeremy's character is starting to grate on me a little now though. He is not so naive as he was in the previous two but he still seems far more innocent that a boy of 14 who lived in Covent Garden and worked daily at the Bow Street Magistrate would be. Maybe I am cynical though. As a word of warning for any who might be sensitive, this book has a lot of discussion about sex. Jeremy is, as I said, a 14 year old boy who talks to other teenage boys. The subject comes up. Sex is also a major component in what is uncovered in the investigation and a good many characters who turn up in this one are sailors on leave. So it's there more than a bit in the plot but not described at all. Some of the conversations are actually quite amusing.
Profile Image for Kelly.
956 reviews44 followers
September 1, 2016
I was a little slow to get into this one, but once I did, I remembered why I love the series so much. Great writing. The characters are interesting, true-to-life, and seem to be accurate, historically (although I'm admittedly not an expert). The story is widely varied- gripping, grotesque, comical, heart-rending... and I'm left appreciating again Sir John's sense of justice and pursuit of truth.

Two additional thoughts:
Profile Image for Leslie.
2,699 reviews203 followers
February 1, 2021
January 2021 reread:
I was a tad taken aback by a relatively minor aspect of this book (which was mentioned in passing more than once) - the events in this 3rd book of the series take place about one year after the events of the first book. Yet so much has changed in the household during that time & during this book!

I had a pretty clear recollection of the plot which involves Sir John in a investigation for the Royal Navy. Each time I read this book, it reminds me of how the practices of the Royal Navy in the mid-eighteenth century formed part of the reason for the American Revolution...

The ending is one which leaves Sir John & the reader with mixed emotions and thus is not quite as satisfying to me as the previous books. However, it is interesting to see the jurisdicational questions (particularly at this moment in American history) along with the brief glimpse of how differently justice is dispensed at Mr. Welch's court from that at Bow Street.
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