Captain Vanderdecker was an ordinary 16th century ship's captain until an accident involving an alchemist on the run from the Inquisition, and a mishandled magic potion, left him and his crew immortal, indestructible, and incredibly stinky! Not just unwashed-sailor stinky. This was a stench that could make rotting corpses mixed with diarrhea seem like a breath of fresh air. Unfit for human company, Vanderdecker and his crew set out to sea. Fortunately, every seven years, the stench vanishes for about a month, allowing them to land and restock. Then it returns, and it's off to sea once more. It's a boring life, but what are you going to do?
What Vanderdecker doesn't know is that the life insurance policy he took out when he was young pays fifty percent compound interest for every year he lives past seventy-five. It was a sucker bet at the time—sailors notoriously die young—but now Vanderdecker's heir, whoever that may be, will own more money than there is in the world if he dies.
Jane Doland is a clerk who works for the Lombard Bank. A bank that happens to be owned by a very old insurance company. Jane is an ordinary young woman with a ordinary, boring job. There's just one thing about her: she has absolutely no sense of smell. When this little fact comes to the attention of her superiors, Jane suddenly find herself with a very unusual, and very secret assignment: contact Captain Vanderdecker, and make a deal with him, before the economy of the entire world is destroyed!
Tropes in this novel:
- Agent Mulder: Danny Bennett, a recurring character in several Holt novels, is a BBC journalist with a wide range of conspiracy theories, all tying to the ultimate power behind world history: The British Milk Marketing Board. He is slightly vindicated in this novel when he gets caught up with Montalban and the Lombard Bank.
- Alchemy Is Magic: The alchemist Montalban developed the immortality potion that blighted the lives of Vanderdecker and his crew, and also routinely turns lead into gold—a technique he actually taught Vanderdecker to help make up for the immortality/horrible stench thing.
- The Alcoholic: The crew's problems all started because they ran out of booze and raided Montalban's belongings looking for some, eventually mistaking the elixir of life for liquor. After becoming immortal, they spend much of their interminable spare time getting drunk, and much of their shore leave is spent restocking their alcohol supply.
- Been There, Shaped History: The immortal alchemist Montalban turns out to secretly be responsible for pretty much all of modern science and technology—all of which he developed in an attempt to cure the horrific stench that was an unfortunate side-effect of his immortality potion. Vanderdecker and co also end up changing the course of a number of major naval events that they coincidentally happened to sail through.
- Boredom Montage: Vanderdecker's life is one. His voyage only really goes anywhere once every seven years (And one out of every three times it's to Bridport, because that's the only place capable of repairing his ship). So roughly 82 months out of every 84 he spends aimlessly wandering the sea, getting drunk and reading books, and making gold. Then he spends one month reaching the nearest good sized port, and spends a month of shore leave selling the gold so he can buy booze and reading material for the next voyage. Repeat ad naseum for several centuries.
- Complete Immortality: The Flying Dutchman and his crew. They drank a magical potion—by accident—and now they can't die no matter how hard they try, and have an unbearable stench that makes them unable to come ashore, except for a brief period every seven years when the stench fades. One crew member spends all his free time jumping from the crow's nest in the hopes that maybe this time, he'll finally die.
- Compound-Interest Time Travel Gambit: An accidental example—Vanderdecker doesn't realize his life insurance policy had compound interest, but now it's worth so much that it will bankrupt the world if he dies.
- Mention is also made of Jane finding a savings account that Vanderdecker made in 1879 which is not an interest-bearing account, so has been worth six pounds, eight and fourpence for a hundred years.
- Conspiracy Theorist: Recurring character Danny Bennett, who also appears in several other Holt novels, actually manages to uncover some real conspiracies this time—although he remains convinced, despite the lack of any evidence, that the Milk Marketing Board must be involved somehow.
- External Retcon: The entire book is a retcon of the story of Richard Wagner's opera, The Flying Dutchman.
- Flying Dutchman: subverted; the Flying Dutchman and his crew had accidentally drunk some elixir which gave them immortality, but also the most outrageous body odour for all but one month in every 7 years. In the book, Wagner is said to have been given direct inspiration from the captain of the crew.
- Happily Ever After: Exaggerated. Happily Ever After really means something when the elixir of life is a major plot point.
- Here We Go Again!: While celebrating the end of the stench, the crew and Jane drink another dodgy elixir. This one makes them glow and grow extra limbs (that later fall off) periodically. So they all have to go into wandering exile again, but at least this time they have a new friend, more personal space, and the on/off cycle of the side effects isn't quite as bad.
- MayflyDecember Romance: One seems to be starting to develop between Jane and Vanderdecker. Then she drinks some dodgy elixir of life...
- Reassigned to Antarctica: The RPQ Motor Factors account is where Jane's company sends people to make their careers die. It's an unassuming small business account that has somehow become a torturous incomprehensible mess that most people resign to seek another position elsewhere rather than touch. Jane is given it as punishment for asking questions about Vanderdecker, at least until someone realizes that her lack of smell makes her especially suited for making contact with him.
- Unnecessarily Large Vessel: After the Flying Dutchman discovers that he's the richest person in the world, thanks to compound interest, he trades in his old ship for a used aircraft carrier. For his crew of less than a dozen.
- Justified once you get to know his crew; after 400 years together with them, you would want some personal space too.
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: Vanderdecker (aka "The Flying Dutchman") and his functionally indestructible crew, forced to sea by the horrible stench that hangs around nearly all the time thanks to a dodgy elixir of life. One of them has adopted a hobby of regularly throwing himself off the top of the mast in the hope that this time it'll work. (All it usually results in is extra work for the ship's carpenter.) This is mainly because they have to spend most of their time stuck in close proximity with the same people eighty-three months out of every eighty-four for centuries, which they spend aimlessly wandering around the ocean with absolutely nothing to do.