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The Boston Phoenix Flashman Returns

Sir Harry's latest adventures

By Clea Simon

AUGUST 28, 2000:  Life, not to mention numerous indiscriminate sexual escapades and hogsheads of champagne, takes its toll on all of us. But for Sir Harry Flashman, undeserving hero of a dozen campaigns, fate has been kind. In his later years (which are also those of the 19th century), when we run into him again in Flashman and the Tiger, the charming antihero of the Crimea, India, and our own Sioux wars is still handsome, still reasonably fit, and still capable of enjoying the carnal appetite of a beautiful French spy with whom he is defrauding a Russian diplomat. Or, as he puts it, of "saddling up" with a "delightful little spanker" while ostensibly serving the interests of "the Great White Mother," Queen Victoria. In other words, the lusty, coarse adventurer who first appeared as a full-grown, appetitive male in 1969's bawdy picaresque Flashman is back for more.

Not that he's exactly the same old Flashy that many of us have come to know and love. The tall, handsome young officer with the handsome moustaches -- whose soldierly appearance is constantly conjuring an utterly unfounded belief in an equally soldierly courage -- is now a grandfather, with not quite the energy of his youthful adventures (which span 10 earlier volumes). Perhaps more to the point, in this most recent cache of "The Flashman Papers," the number of years left to chronicle have been whittled down, with all of the best wars of the era and most of our hero's prime accounted for. Which means that the erstwhile editor of this newly discovered packet of "memoirs," (a/k/a author George MacDonald Fraser) has less with which to work.

Those of us long intimate with dear old Flashy remember the amorous poltroon in his prime, when the young British officer was gallivanting around Kabul with Sekunder Burnes and launching the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade with his tremendous flatulence. We came to enjoy the company of the bald-faced coward, a man who in the privacy of his memoirs made no bones about his desire to eat well, drink better, and save his own skin first in any situation. Flashy, the adult form of the bully created by Thomas Hughes in his 1857 novel Tom Brown's School Days, may have let the world be fooled by those brave moustaches, but we readers were in on the truth. And because we too have perhaps often felt the same way -- hung over, scared, horny, or just plain peeved -- we could relate. Add in the Tom Jones-style humor (updated with contemporary scatological language) and Flashy's adventures more than sugarcoat the history inside -- they positively wash it down with good claret, as Flashy himself would often like to do.

True, when Flashy stepped farther afield -- unwillingly joining forces with Ulysses (or "Sam") Grant and various other American warriors in Flash for Freedom! (1971) and Flashman and the Redskins (1982), he stumbled a bit. But back in the Old World, our charming picaro reassumed his tall, dark, and cowardly stature. And for that reason, those of us who have long been fans will thoroughly enjoy this latest volume, really one novella and two short stories. In "The Road to Charing Cross" Flashman -- done in once more by the charms of women -- basically averts World War I, though he notes that such a war "will happen eventually, mark my words, if this squirt of a Kaiser ain't put firmly in his place." In "The Subtleties of Baccarat" he meddles in an actual scandal involving the Prince of Wales (whom he calls "Dirty Bertie"). And in the final segment he runs, as quickly as possible, through the defeat of the British at Rorke's Drift in South Africa. It is during this last story that age may be showing most. Here Flashy interacts with two fictional characters, and that mars the series's sense of history. What's more, in this multi-racial setting, Flashy's language -- which is probably accurate for his age and station -- can make a contemporary reader squirm a bit. Flashman may be historically correct, but he's never been politically correct, or even very nice.

Which is not to say that Flashy himself is a bigot. His one redeeming feature throughout the series has been his honest and often generous appreciation for the courage, brains, and skill of those around him, even (or especially) those who have attempted to seduce, drug, torture, or otherwise discomfort him. That he can in retrospect cite the courage of the Zulu warriors as well as the blood lust of a charming French swordswoman speaks in his defense. If only you newcomers could have met him in his youth . . .

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