George 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.
In 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.
NUMBER 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.
Yakub 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. +++
FOR MY NUMBER TWO FLASHMAN NOVEL CLICK HERE
FOR MY TAKE ON WILL JORDAN’S RYAN DRAKE NOVELS CLICK HERE.
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