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. Continue reading