Category Archives: Pulp Heroes

TOP FIVE FLASHMAN NOVELS: NUMBER FIVE

For Balladeer’s Blog’s Number One Harry Flashman Novel click HERE  . For background info on George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous anti-hero Harry Paget Flashman you can also click that link.

Flashman on the March5. FLASHMAN ON THE MARCH (2005)

Time Period: The 1867-1868 Abyssinian military campaign and rescue mission.

This volume of The Flashman Papers is set right after Harry’s unsuccessful attempt to spirit away Mexico’s overthrown Emperor Maximilian before he could be executed. (Well it wasn’t Flashman’s fault. As history tells us, Maximilian DID refuse to escape with the conspirators who busted in to save his sorry butt.)

Synopsis: After a passionate farewell kiss from (the real-life) Princess Agnes Salm-Salm, Harry Flashman further raises the ire of his Austrian escorts by seducing a young, blonde and buxom Hapsburg aristocrat on the trans-Atlantic voyage with Maximilian’s coffin.

In Trieste, with the Austrians planning to unleash their wrath on Flashman as soon as the ceremony for Maximilian is over, our main character bolts for the British consulate. HMG is happy to have Sir Harry on hand and entrusts him to escort the notorious 100,000 Maria Theresa Thalers being sent to finance General Robert Napier’s upcoming Abyssinian Expedition.   

Flashman on the March 2That expedition is being launched to free British captives being held and tortured by the (historically) unhinged Emperor Theodore II of Abyssinia (Called Ethiopia today). 

Before Flashman knows it he’s caught up in a clash with Muslim slavers on the Red Sea, then breezing right along to the Eritrean port of Zula, embarkation point for the British campaign into Abyssinia.  

The author George MacDonald Fraser’s descriptive talents were in top form in Flashman on the March. As fans well know, Fraser creates scenes in the reader’s mind that surpass the biggest-budgeted cinematic blockbusters.

This particular tale lets him fully unleash his genius for seeming to take his audience to faraway planets while never leaving the Earth. Abyssinia/ Ethiopia feels menacingly alien and its hostile terrain might as well be on an orbiting asteroid as we get dragged into deadly danger with the reluctant Flashman.   

Harry and his Royal Marine escorts eventually catch up with General Napier far inland, and even though our protagonist officially turns over the shipment of Thalers he is still at Napier’s mercy in terms of papers and transit orders home to England. 

With the British forces – complete with 44 war elephants from India – moving more slowly than anticipated, Napier decides to send Flashman on ahead of the main army.

Harry’s orders: a) to rescue the hostages by any means necessary if the opportunity presents itself, if not, then b) to covertly keep tabs on the location of the hostages in case the Emperor decides to take them even further inland and c) to feel out Theodore’s many enemies in the war-torn country and try to recruit ad hoc allies to prevent the Emperor’s army from escaping.   

Kevin Kline good FlashmanFlashman’s guide, translator and fellow warrior will be the beautiful Ethiopian woman Uliba-Wark, half-sister to the country’s Queen. Uliba-Wark has a small domain of her own and is up to her neck in Abyssinia’s countless political and sexual intrigues & rivalries.

A running battle on horseback which leaves Harry and the warlike beauty as the sole survivors enroute to her castle is just a hint of the wild bed and battle action that lays ahead. I still go back and forth about placing Flashman on the March at number 5 or number 4.   Continue reading

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TOP FIVE FLASHMAN NOVELS: NUMBER FOUR

For Balladeer’s Blog’s Number One Harry Flashman Novel click HERE  For background info on George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous anti-hero Harry Paget Flashman you can also click that link.

Flashman and the Dragon4. FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON (1985)

Time Period: Anglo-French Military Expedition to Peking – 1860

This volume from Flashman’s memoirs is set in China immediately after his adventures in the Second Opium War. Unfortunately those adventures are among the Flashman Papers that we’ll never get to peruse, since George MacDonald Fraser didn’t get a chance to cover them before his death in 2008.

Even if his estate allows other authors to complete the various Flashman stories that were alluded to but never completed in Fraser’s lifetime it just won’t be the same.

Note: The “dragon” of the title refers to the general Victorian Age label for China in its exotic, mysterious entirety. 

Synopsis: With the Second Opium War over, Harry Flashman is killing time as he awaits the ship that will take him home to England. A curvy, sultry blonde Missionary named Phoebe Carpenter uses her feminine charms to manipulate the ever-lustful Harry into running a shipload of opium to Hong Kong.

Flashman and the Dragon 2Or at least that’s what she TELLS him is being smuggled. It turns out instead to be an arms shipment for the Taipingi rebels who have split China into a blood-soaked Civil War for the past decade. Flashman doesn’t realize the true nature of the contraband he’s transporting until he’s forced to fight off a band of Macao pirates.

Thanks to some help from a sexy Chinese woman acting as a British agent our protagonist triumphs in the pirate attack. Unfortunately, when the British authorities subsequently board the vessel Harry is facing big trouble. For transporting weapons to belligerents in a war HMG has stayed out of he could be liable for years in prison or turned over to the Chinese for punishment if the Qing Dynasty insists.    Continue reading

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TOP FIVE HARRY FLASHMAN NOVELS: NUMBER TWO

For Balladeer’s Blog’s Number One Harry Flashman Novel click HERE  For background info on George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous anti-hero Harry Paget Flashman you can also click that link. 

Flashman in the Great Game2. FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME (1975)

Time Period: The Great Mutiny (1857-1858)

This Flashman novel comes in a very close second to my top selection, which I examined last time around. Ultimately the way that a portion of Flashman in the Great Game gets a wee bit rambling and unfocused relegated it to the Number 2 spot.

Synopsis: As the title indicates, this time around Harry Flashman, the most self-serving and roguish Cavalry Officer in Queen Victoria’s army, gets caught up in what diplomats of the 1800s called “The Great Game.” Said game involved the figurative chess match played by Great Britain, Russia and other powers as they all angled to extend or maintain their power and influence in Central Asia, especially India.   

Alan Bates -better Flashman than MalcolmLord Palmerston of Her Majesty’s Government is wary of a potential uprising among the Indian troops employed by the British East India Company and of Russian interference in the form of Flashman’s old foe, (the real life) Count Ignatieff.

Once again the fate of nations rests on the thoroughly unreliable shoulders of Harry Paget Flashman. (See pic of Alan Bates at left)

Laila Rouass perfect LakshmibaiIn India our swashbuckling protagonist struggles to stay alive amid assassination attempts by Russian agents while vying with Count Ignatieff for political influence in the court of (the real life) Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi. (See pic of Laila Rouass to the right)

Lakshmibai’s overwhelming beauty, feisty spirit, skill at horsemanship and magnificent fencing abilities make her one of the few women to actually tug at Flashman’s heart and not just his man-parts.

In real life many prudish British politicians of the time called her “The Jezebel of Jhansi” over her sexual openness but such a derogatory nickname would only enhance her standing in the eyes of the lustful Harry.       Continue reading

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THE TOP FIVE HARRY FLASHMAN NOVELS: NUMBER ONE

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. 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 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 calling for conduct above and beyond the call. But when it comes to underhandedness “Ol’ Flash Harry” beats Maverick hands-down. Continue reading

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TOP SEVEN ROBERT LUDLUM NOVELS: NUMBER ONE

FOR BALLADEER’S BLOG’S SEVENTH PLACE LUDLUM NOVEL CLICK HERE 

Matarese CircleNUMBER ONE: THE MATARESE CIRCLE (1979) 

TIME PERIOD: Late 1970s with investigations into events from before World War One and later.

To me this lengthy, epic espionage novel from Robert Ludlum was his finest work, partly because it nicely encapsulated how – over the course of the 20th Century – the world gradually found itself at the mercy of elaborate “intelligence communities”  (LMAO) working in conjunction with international corporate fascists.  

There’s something almost poetic about the way that – with the hindsight we have here in 2017 – the bitter enmity between the novel’s central characters (one a U.S. agent and the other a Soviet agent) is washed away a mere decade before the real-world collapse of the Cold War paradigm.

And with that same hindsight it’s almost eerie how those two rivals come to realize that the real seeds of future totalitarianism lie in the New Feudalism’s ugly motto: Nations are obsolete, so wealth wedded to unchecked political power is the coming thing. Ludlum’s arch-villain Guillaume de Matarese was positively prescient.

LEAD HERO: Brandon Alan Scofield – Codename: Beowulf Agate. Forty-six year old veteran of Consular Operations, Ludlum’s fictional Intelligence Organization specializing in defections from hostile nations – mostly Communist – to the United States.

Matarese Circle 2As The Matarese Circle opens, Scofield has been with Consular Operations for 22 years, almost since its founding. A Harvard grad fluent in multiple languages, Brandon joined the U.S. State Department right out of college. After a couple years in the “real” State Department he gravitated to State’s covert section Consular Operations (or Cons Op for short). 

In those early years Cons Op’s activities were not yet totally Top Secret. They were virtually a humanitarian organization which tried to accommodate as many people fleeing the Iron Curtain nations as possible. So many Eastern Europeans began seeking asylum in the Western World that the Soviets realized they had to take steps to cut off the flow of escapees.

Similar to the way they would later construct the Berlin Wall to prevent flight from East Berlin in particular, the Soviets clamped down on potential defections throughout Europe and elsewhere. Soviet intelligence agents – among them Vasili Taleniekov – began shutting down the almost openly- operating Cons Op defection network.

Violence escalated on both sides and eventually Consular Operations was forced to act more and more covertly. The organization was no longer able to accommodate asylum requests for the scores of people who appealed to them daily, hoping to escape to the U.S.

Now Cons Op had to narrow their scope exclusively to high-level defectors who were deemed sufficiently “valuable” to U.S. Intelligence, Military and Scientific pursuits. Brandon Scofield proved proficient at the covert skills and the violence necessary to carry out Cons Op’s narrowed mission but was disillusioned by the changes.

Scofield was set to transfer to a different section of the State Department, intent on pursuing a career as a Diplomat. Unfortunately, shortly before that transfer could be finalized, KGB Agent Vasili Taleniekov (who knew nothing of the planned transfer) engineered the hit and run death of Scofield’s wife Karine, as a message to Beowulf Agate and his colleagues in Consular Operations.

Brandon Scofield’s fury over his wife’s fate steeled his resolve rather than intimidating him or making him careless. He canceled the transfer request and went on to be Cons Ops’ most effective field agent in Europe and the U.S.S.R.

Not only did Beowulf Agate thrive on stinging the Soviets by pulling off the most high-level defections he could, but he also took a more personal revenge by killing the brother of Vasili Taleniekov, the KGB man behind his wife’s murder.

From then on the professional and personal enmity between Scofield/ Beowulf Agate and Taleniekov/ The Serpent helped write the history of both their organizations. The two men clashed all over the map, with Scofield and his fellow “Cold War versions of the Scarlet Pimpernel” helping as many defectors as possible while Taleniekov and his KGB colleagues thwarted them whenever they could.

SECONDARY HERO: Vasili Vasilievich Taleniekov – Codename: The Serpent. (I’ve always felt the Viper would have made a better codename since it would reflect the “V” for Vasili just like Beowulf Agate’s codename matched the B.A. for Brandon Alan in Scofield’s name.)

As this novel opens Taleniekov has been with the KGB for 25 years. Like Scofield he was a brilliant student but the Soviet government decreed that with his aptitudes he would serve the State better as an intelligence agent rather than as an historian like he wanted. Continue reading

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ROBERT LUDLUM’S TOP SEVEN NOVELS: NUMBER SIX

FOR BALLADEER’S BLOG’S SEVENTH PLACE LUDLUM NOVEL CLICK HERE 

Road to Gandolfo6. THE ROAD TO GANDOLFO (1975)

TIME PERIOD: 1970s, Post-Watergate

I have a feeling many Ludlum fans will be ticked off that I ranked this novel – for which Robert used the pseudonym Michael Shepherd – above the seventh novel on my countdown.  

HERO: Sam Devereaux, a handsome and brilliant lawyer who works for the United States Army and has risen to the rank of Major. Sam hates Army life and can’t wait to get out.

In his final days before leaving the service he becomes drawn into the schemes of General “Mac” Hawkins, who establishes grounds for continuing to extort cooperation from Sam even after his return to civilian life.  

Road to Gandolfo 2VILLAIN: General MacKenzie Hawkins, living legend and a cross between George Patton and Peter Falk’s manipulative CIA agent in the original version of The In-Laws.

During World War Two, the 19 year old Hawkins was a decorated hero of the Battle of the Bulge and an instant folk hero. After the war Mac went to West Point, where he became an all-star Running Back for the football team.

During the Korean War, Hawkins moved up in the ranks and – shrewdly reading the emerging geo-political landscape – pursued his further career in the Far East. A General by the height of American involvement in the Vietnam War, MacKenzie eventually gravitated to covert operations, specifically Black Ops.

Road to Gandolfo 3Exiled to a diplomatic post over his tendency to make waves the General’s hard-drinking Bad Boy behavior caused an international incident between the U.S. and China.

When Major Sam Devereaux’s combination of legal brilliance and street-savvy saves Hawkins from hard time at Leavenworth or in China the General coldly and calculatingly makes the clearly talented Sam an unwilling accomplice in his plot TO KIDNAP THE POPE FOR FOUR HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS IN RANSOM. Continue reading

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ROBERT LUDLUM: THE TOP SEVEN NOVELS – NUMBER SEVEN

Robert LudlumBalladeer’s Blog takes a look at the espionage novels of the late Robert Ludlum. I know it’s odd for me to write about a figure as popular as Ludlum but I’m addressing ONLY his novels in terms of my rankings. Even the novels he wrote under other names.

People who know this fun author strictly from the Jason Bourne movies may not be familiar with these works because they are very different in tone and approach from the Matt Damon flicks.

Gemini Contenders7. THE GEMINI CONTENDERS (1976) 

TIME PERIOD: World War Two era through the early 1970s.

I’m sure many Ludlumites will be furious that I have this novel in last place. They’ll likely be even angrier when they see which novel I ranked above it in 6th place.   

HERO: WORLD WAR TWO PORTION – Vittorio Fontini-Cristi, the good-timing playboy scion of the moneyed and blue blooded Fontini-Cristi family in Italy. Vittorio’s father opposed Benito Mussolini so the dictator liquidated the family and confiscated their estate.

Gemini Contenders 2Vittorio was the sole survivor of the family. Sobered up into a more serious worldview over the massacre of his loved ones, Vittorio became a deep cover intelligence agent sabotaging Mussolini’s war effort. His twin sons are the major characters of the 1970s portion.   

VILLAIN: WORLD WAR TWO PORTION – Cardinal Donatti, a religious zealot determined to find and destroy certain ancient documents that were entrusted to the Fontini-Cristi Dynasty.

Those documents, if made public, would supposedly shock the Christian, Jewish and Muslim worlds into potential chaos. If they fall into the wrong hands they could supposedly be used to blackmail the Vatican and other Christian power centers. Continue reading

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