Flashman cutGeorge MacDonald Fraser’s series of novels about his infamous anti-hero Harry Paget Flashman are thought-provoking, educational, thrilling and most especially – gloriously dark-humored.

Collectively referred to as The Flashman Papers, the books are DEFINITELY for adults only and not just because of the raucous sexual escapades of the main character. The historical and philosophical themes explored are not for the squeamish nor the simple-mindedly outraged.   

Fraser’s first Harry Flashman novel appeared in 1969, the same year as the American novel Little Big Man. The two books are similar in approach since they both depict a main character who gets caught up in a series of historical adventures involving Great Events and Great Figures with the events being looked at in a critical light and the figures largely lampooned.

FlashmanIn the case of Harry Flashman, however, the adventures are much more detailed because Fraser used an entire series of novels. (The 4th book in the series, not the 1st, is my Number One listing) Flashman himself is amoral, ruthless and driven largely by his lust for loot and sex.

And therein lies the genius of Fraser’s writing: the reader is permitted to feel THEIR OWN outrage over the atrocities depicted in the novels. There are no shrill lectures in the narrative, just an often bleak backdrop in which the misdeeds of history’s Great Names often make Harry Flashman’s mere monetary and carnal pursuits look almost noble by comparison.   

Flashman himself often brings to mind James Garner’s slick-talking gambler/ gunslinger Bret Maverick from 1950s television. Like Maverick, Harry Flashman proudly calls himself a coward who tries to avoid violence and thrives on trying to con or outsmart his adversaries rather than fight them. (But he often winds up having to fight them anyway.)

And like Maverick, the needs of adventure fiction eventually make the claims of cowardice wear thin because – no matter how reluctantly – both Harry and Bret always wind up in situations requiring conduct above and beyond the call. But when it comes to underhandedness “Ol’ Flash Harry” beats Maverick hands-down.

George MacDonald Fraser proved once again the writers of the U.K. tower over the rest of the world when it comes to crafting despicable characters who are simultaneously charming as hell. So grab a sword and a pistol, slam down some booze and enjoy the swashbuckling adventures of the Victorian Age’s roguish, lovable blackguard Harry Paget Flashman.   

Flashman at the ChargeNUMBER ONE: FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE (1973)

Time Period: The Crimean War (1853-1856)

Favorite Book Blurb: “At the Charge of the Light Brigade, one man reasoned why …”

Synopsis: War fever is sweeping Great Britain as the “by-jingoists” – later shortened to our more commonly used term jingoists – clamor for HMG to get involved in the Crimean War on the Anti-Russian side. Our protagonist Harry Flashman is determined to avoid action in the field this time around.

(This was the 4th novel in the series.)

Flashman returns to active duty with a position in England overseeing artillery and munitions, hoping thereby to sit out this conflict in a safe post on the Homefront. As usual his boozing, gambling and whoring wind up getting him in a fix that finds him dispatched to the front in charge of the military instruction of a young Royal.

After surviving the Battle of Alma, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade and other assorted actions, Harry winds up as a POW after getting captured during the Charge of the Light Brigade. As always Upper Class Pigs from all nations look out for each other’s interests, so, as was the real-life custom back then, Flashman’s status gets him a cushy “imprisonment” at the estate of a low-level Russian aristocrat.

While there our protagonist whiles away the months by boozing and feasting with his host. He also oinks and boinks with the man’s daughter and sister-in-law. When a small-scale peasant uprising breaks out and the estate is attacked Flashman and a fellow British POW flee with Russian plans for a (fictional) invasion of India to open up a Second Front in the war.

After a thrilling chase in a horse-drawn sleigh across the snowy Russian landscape Flashman winds up recaptured by the Tsar’s forces under the sinister real-life Count Ignatiev, who plans to use Harry as a sacrificial pawn in the planned attack on India. Our antihero is freed by the real-life anti-Russian guerilla and bandit chief Yakub Beg.

Yakub Beg plans to force Harry to take part in a raid on a Russian fortress. Yakub intends for our protagonist’s familiarity with artillery and rockets (Gained at the beginning of the novel, remember?) to enable them to inflict a massive defeat on the Russkies. 

Royal Flash posterYakub Beg’s beautiful lover the Silk One has an illicit fling with Flashman, during which she realizes his true nature as an untrustworthy cad. To ensure that he doesn’t abandon them at the first opportunity during the confusion of the upcoming battle she slips him some hashish to steel his resolve.

In one of my favorite parts of any Flashman story our scurvy main character gets as high as an assassin and hilariously embodies every Heroic Trope that he usually lampoons as he leads Yakub Beg and the Silk One’s army against the Russians. He even rides to the attack singing Rule Brittania for Christ’s sake!       

Flashman’s newfound rocket expertise and chemically-induced courage help the anti-Russian forces earn an explosive victory, simultaneously foiling Count Ignatiev’s plans to invade India.

Fraser skillfully uses the young and roguish Harry Flashman to carry the bulk of the tale while the narration provided by the much older Flashman, looking back on events from his carefree old age, often provides wistful reflections that stay with the reader. In this case regarding Yakub Beg and his rebel band: 

“They were such an outrageous mix of Robin Hood with the Arabian Nights that I’m often tempted to think I dreamt the whole affair. But I have only to look in the history books … and there they are.”  

A few days later Yakub Beg and the Silk One escort Harry to the British Frontier, where he rides to an English post intent on informing HMG about his sterling service in saving the Jewel in the Crown itself from the Russians.

In the most thoroughly British ending to any Flashman novel, the unimpressed bureaucrats at the station aren’t interested and cut Harry short by saying “First things first. This is a British Customs Post. Have you anything to declare?”

God, I LOVE George MacDonald Fraser’s wry sense of humor. His Flashman novels made me even fonder of our British cousins than I already was. +++     



© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Filed under Neglected History, opinion, Pulp Heroes


  1. Pingback: TOP FIVE HARRY FLASHMAN NOVELS: NUMBER TWO | Balladeer's Blog

  2. there is a blackadder episode entitled “private plane” and one of the characters is a flashheart who woos the ladies whenever he can despite world war one is raging all around, is good looking, aka rick maher, i wonder if these books and this character are related.

    • Hello again! I love Blackadder, too! As far as I know, the Flashheart family line like the World War One pilot and the cross-dresser who steals Blackadder’s girl in Blackadder II were just a tongue-in-cheek nod to Flashman. I’ve never heard about any other connection. George MacDonald Fraser was born in 1925 so as far as I know he’s not tight with Rik Mayall or Rowan Atkisson.

  3. Pingback: TOP FIVE FLASHMAN NOVELS: NUMBER THREE | Balladeer's Blog

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  9. I never caught what the Flash man books were like but I get it now. The Maverick reference helped.

  10. Pingback: BEST OF JANUARY 2018 | Balladeer's Blog

  11. Pingback: FLASHMAN NOVELS: SEVENTH PLACE | Balladeer's Blog

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  13. Darryl

    I love the even-handed review you gave Flashman! Too many SJWs try to rip the Flashman books to pieces.

  14. Merc

    Why do so many people hate these books?

  15. Pingback: FLASHMAN NOVELS: NINTH PLACE | Balladeer's Blog

  16. Elroy

    I like Maverick! I will check these novels out!

  17. W McCann

    Very good! Most people don’t get the Flashman novels at all.

  18. Pingback: ALEXANDRE DUMAS: NEGLECTED NOVELS | Balladeer's Blog


  20. Pingback: FLASHMAN NOVELS: SIXTH TO NINTH | Balladeer's Blog

  21. Kiger

    I could never get into these books. It’s like you have to have a degree in history to know what’s going on and to know what’s real from what’s fiction.

  22. Pingback: FLASHMAN NOVELS: TENTH PLACE | Balladeer's Blog

  23. Henderson Webb

    I have read Flashman and Flashman at the Charge. In fact I’ve read both twice! They are historically quite accurate (not including Flashman’s over-laid adventure) hence very interesting. Moreover they are hysterically funny. I also read Mr. America but didn’t enjoy that one nearly as much. Anyone recommend their favorites? … I plan to start a new one soon so welcome suggestions.

    • Thanks for the comment! The rest of my Top Five were Flashman in the Great Game, Flashman’s Lady, Flashman and the Dragon and Flashman on the March. 6th place was Flashman and the Mountain of Light.

  24. Chrissy

    I’ve always been afraid to read these Flashman books because of their content and because everyone always says you have to know a lot of history to even understand what’s going on in the books but your reviews make them sound like so much fun!

  25. Pingback: FLASHMAN OF ARABIA: LOST FLASHMAN PAPERS | Balladeer's Blog

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  27. Elton

    You get Harry Flashman! Almost nobody does these days!

  28. Winters

    Finally a review that tells me what these books are about!

  29. Pingback: FRONTIERADO FLASHMAN: FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS (1982) | Balladeer's Blog

  30. Doyle

    Excellent take on the Flashman Papers. 🙂 Too few people get the concept. Thank you and best of luck.

  31. Paul

    I’ve always found these books to be boring. Like reading a school text book.

  32. Gorgoroth1919

    Your review of these books is wonderful! I read this one based on your review and loved it!

  33. Kelton

    These sound interesting but over my head.

  34. Gus B

    You got my curiosity up about these books now.

  35. Milton

    You’re one of the 1% of Americans who understands our Flashy!

  36. Asa

    It’s good to find a reviewer who gets the Flashman stories.

  37. Mark

    Thoroughly agreed. This is by a fine margin the best of the books. In addition to the book’s many merits, as noted by Balladeer, I’d also add that the depiction of 19th Century feudal Russian is vividly detailed. The whole peasantry was subjected to a serfdom, in the thrall to a minute set of oligarchs, with a brutal repression handed out by the Cossacks at will.
    The Flashman books (and I’ve read them all repeatedly) are not just thrilling reads, they above all manage to boil first-hand accounts of the day into a very accessible format.

    • Thank you very much for the kind words! I love to reread the Flashman series over and over, too! They inspired my interest in many aspects of 19th Century history I would never have known about otherwise!

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