- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

My favorite character in all of British fiction is a multi-faulted cad who is a liar, a serial philanderer who does not hesitate to slap around unwilling women, a coward on the battlefield and elsewhere (“as yellow as yesterday’s custard” it was said of him) and a conniving scoundrel who gains high honors by commandeering credit for victories won by others while he cowered in a hole far from harm’s way. Should Brig. Gen. Harry Flashman as much as wink at one of my sisters, I would cane him to the pavement and deliver a good swift kick to his head.

No problem, for the scoundrel exists only on paper. Flashman was the creation of George MacDonald Fraser, an inventive writer with an eye both for mischief and history. And Flashman is one of those creatures who you can loathe and laugh at simultaneously.

An editor of a Scottish newspaper, Mr. Fraser was on the financial shoals when he conceived the Harry Flashman character. A person of that name was a drunken bully from the pages of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” a widely read novel about British public schools published in 1857. Flashman was expelled for serial misconduct.

In dire need of cash, Mr. Fraser mused, “What happened to this miserable cad after he was cashiered from Rugby?” Having served in the British army during World War II, he knew a bit about military life, and he was an avid reader of history. He set to work in evenings at his kitchen table, and by his account, he wrote “Flashman” in 90 hours over several months. It covered the years from Flashman’s expulsion to entry into the army and frontier service in Afghanistan. And it mirrored actual events, including one of the worst battlefield debacles in British history.

In an author’s note Mr. Fraser claimed that book came from the “Flashman Papers,” discovered in a locked tea box during a sale of household furniture in Leicestershire in 1963, and that they were a “completely truthful account” of the general’s early adventures. All he did, he wrote,was to correct minor spelling errors and straighten out confused dates with footnotes.

The scam was rather thin, as even a cursory check of British military records would have so revealed. But as a New York Times critic noted, of the first 34 “Flashman” reviews in the United States, “ten … found the book to be genuine autobiography.”

Mr. Fraser went on to write 12 books in the series, on British colonial campaigns, and then the American Civil War. (Unsurprisingly, Flashman fought both on Union and Confederate sides, and was decorated by both.)

Alas, Mr. Fraser died in January, aged 82, and thus the last of his howlingly-funnynovels we shall read is “The Reavers,” which he wrote in the final months of a productive career. Mr. Fraser was a teasingly playful fellow to the end. The book is set on the Scottish-English border in the early 1500s, and involves a band of highway men and scoundrels known locally as “the reivers.” My eye noted the different spelling in the title, and I was about to query the publisher when I found an on-line review from a Brit paper. “Reavers” is an archaic spelling of the term, and Mr. Fraser chose to use it “just for fun.” And perhaps to confuse readers, eh?

Flashman of course came along three centuries later, and thus he has no role in Mr. Fraser’s finale. Not to bother. “The Reavers” contains all the elements of the Flashman series.

• A plot with a thin claim to historical fact (in this instance, a Spanish plot to kidnap King James of Scotland and put an impostor in his place. When the reigning (and aging) queen of England dies, he would succeed toher throne.The prime mover is a Spanish beauty known as “La Infamousa.”

• Sexually pliable women, in this instance, the gorgeous (and feisty) Lady Godiva Dacre and her “chocolate-box pretty” companion Mistress Kylie Delishe. (To be sure, female bed mates are a feature of each Flashman book. His first seduction was of his own father’s mistress, at age 17. Someone who bothered to count computed that by volume eight, Flashman had bedded 480 women.)

• A dashing hero figure, in this instance, the swashbuckling Bonny Gilderoy, who more or less assumes the Flashman role. His heroics foil the plot, he beds both women, and then he makes off with Lady Godiva’s jewels, a scoundrel to the core.

Let me be candid. To enjoy Mr. Fraser’s work means that one has been able to get into his mood of things. He piles absurdity atop absurdity. He snipes at contemporary British soccer thugs. His 16th-century characters talk about which Tube trains to take to get around London and the location of the nearest Marks & Spencer.

The speech patterns of his characters surely are authentic to the era, but I found myself blinking on occasion and re-reading a sentence to make sure I knew what was going on. Hear, for instance, Gilderoy agreeing to let the mischievous Kylie aid in his seduction of Lady Godiva: “Ai’ve nivveer needed a P. R. on mai previous wooings … yet what harm, to hev thee on the inside pitching on mai behaff?”

At full throttle, Mr. Fraser’s prose is outright fun: Hear him describe a reivers gang known as “The Nixons” as they gallop away on a mission of plunder: “A hellish, murderous crew, unshaven, unbuttoned, and reeking of strong drink, their string vests plainly visible beneath their nail jacks, grimy headbands under the visors of their steel caps, rolled-up copies of the Daily Record wrapped about their lance butts, they presented a sight to unman the boldest and render the nervous totally paralytic. At their head, looking like a bare-legged Darth Vadar, rode the notorious Trouserless Will, so-called because he had vowed not to wear breeches until he had settled his deadly feud with the Dumfries Dry-Cleaning Company (a painful story which we won’t go into here) … .”

In its obituary, the Economist called Flashman “the finest fictional rogue ever to grace the map of the British empire.” A blogger to the Guardian suggested that should the public, rather than “hoity-toity judges,” make the choice, Mr. Fraser would be honored for having written “The Great British Book.” This Yank agrees. Farewell, Flashman, and thank you, George Fraser.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com


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