Black Ajax

by George MacDonald Fraser

Review by Cathleen Myers

No, this isn’t a new Flashman novel but it’s the next best thing: Flashman’s father, Captain Buckley Flashman, is a supporting character in this startlingly vivid "Regency" novel, and nearly steals the show from the protagonist (whom we’ll get to in a moment!). Flashman fans will be delighted to know that "Mad Buck" has some choice details to add to the Flashman saga - including the answer to the great mystery of how he happened to marry the high-born Lady Alicia Paget. Indeed, Flashman devotees will readily see where Colonel Sir Harry Flashman inherited many of his - er - talents.

But we digress. Black Ajax is the story of the rise to fame and ultimate tragedy of Thomas Molineux, the American-born ex-slave who fought his way to freedom and became the first internationally famous black Heavyweight Champion in boxing history, very nearly defeating the undefeated Champion of England Tom Cribb in one of the most remarkable prize fights in history. Along the way, Molineux becomes the toast of the ton, is dressed by Beau Brummell, encouraged by the Prince of Wales and Lord Byron, welcomed in Gentleman Jackson’s exclusive boxing salon, and sought out not only by the most beautiful Cyprians but by more than one lady of Society. Unfortunately - perhaps because of its historically accurate racist language - the novel has yet to find an American publisher. You’ll need to order it from the UK.

It’s a pity because Molineux’s story - told with great sympathy and insight and astonishing attention to period detail - is an important chapter in African-American history. Fraser tells the story from a variety of viewpoints - some reliable, some unreliable - and ultimately lets the reader decide for himself the answer to several unanswered historical questions, including the greatest sporting mystery of all: Who really won the first Cribb-Molineux match?

You don’t have to be boxing enthusiast to enjoy this novel. Fraser’s suspenseful accounts of the matches will have you grasping the ropes and cheering Molineux along! As always, Fraser is an incomparable story-teller who can make even a pacifist reader find a horrifying fascination with the bloody and violent details of the sport in those barbaric days before the Queensbury Rules.

Fraser’s remarkable grasp of period slang puts the average Regency romance writer to shame. From Buck’s "Corinthian" slang to the argot of the underworld to the jargon of the ring - all sound incredibly natural on the lips of Fraser’s characters and after a while you’ll be spoutin’ the lingo, too. And wait until you read the story about how Buck Flashman got his Almack’s voucher....

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