by George MacDonald Fraser
Review by Cathleen Myers
We have the great pleasure to inform you of the publication of a new Flashman book by George MacDonald Fraser (available, unfortunately, only in Great Britain at the moment but you can order it from Blackwell’s Booksellers at http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/). Flashman and the Tiger is not a new novel but a collection of three novellas – all featuring an elderly but still formidable Colonel Sir Harry Flashman. They are all marvelous. Fraser is still at the peak of his form, but, then again, he’s always been at the peak of his form.
If you’re not familiar with the Flashman novels (we trust you had a pleasant voyage from Alpha Centauri?), then all we can say is if you love 19th century history and are fond of both a ripping yarn and ironic humor, you’ll adore Fraser. He is not only a great swashbuckling story-teller (surely you’ve seen his 1970’s version of The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers?), he’s a meticulously accurate historian. No less an author than P.G. Wodehouse himself wrote of The Flashman novels, "Now I understand what that ‘when a new planet swims into his ken’ excitement is all about."
To the uninitiated, Flashman was the school bully par excellence in the Thomas Hughes’ 1858 children’s classic Tom Brown’s School Days (parodied by the Monty Python boys as Tomkinson’s School Days in the miniseries Ripping Yarns). In Flashman, the first of the Flashman novels, Fraser takes up the erstwhile bully’s career after his expulsion from Rugby and his increasingly dangerous adventures around the world as he becomes – by lying, cheating, blackmailing, seducing, running away, and sheer accident – the most decorated soldier in British military history, rewarded with a V.C. and a Knighthood. Flashman is an utter blackguard who is, nonetheless, ruthlessly honest with his readers and it’s impossible not to enjoy his alternately ironic and sardonic narrative style. Fraser’s 10 novels are presented as excerpts from Flashman’s Memoirs and, to our great good fortune, they continue to appear.
The first of the "excerpts" in Flashman and the Tiger is The Road to Charing Cross, a strange Ruritania-like adventure that finds our hero blackmailed by an old acquaintance from his Royal Flash days into serving as a special body guard for the Emperor Franz Josef. Of course, there’s plenty of sexual and romantic intrigue (the ladies include a beautiful French secret agent, a voluptuous German Princess, and the dazzling Empress Elisabeth herself!), and the central plot twist will surprise all but the most perspicacious readers. Fraser in this three-novella collection reveals yet another surprising talent – well, perhaps not so surprising: He can write well-constructed mysteries. All three of the stories reveal surprise plot twists that are a real pleasure to reconstruct.
The second novella in Flashman and the Tiger – perhaps the best – is The Tranby Croft Scandal which is both a tremendously entertaining "read" and an excellent analysis of one of the most puzzling mysteries in the history of British jurisprudence. Did Colonel Gordon-Cummings – an honorable soldier and close friend of the Prince of Wales – really cheat at Baccarat, as alleged by the defendants in his law suit for slander? In the clearest and most entertaining prose, Flashman himself plays detective: Why would a wealthy man (with an unencumbered estate worth some 80K a year) risk both his military career, his family’s social position and his own reputation by cheating at cards for petty stakes at a private party? As Flashman himself observes, it just doesn’t make sense. Since the party’s guest of honor was the Prince of Wales, the affair caused a national scandal, especially since it appears that the Prince was implicated in the attempted cover-up of the scandal! Fraser’s own astonishing solution to this Country Weekend House Party mystery seems as reasonable an explanation as any! For Flashman fans, the novella has the added bonus of a guest appearance by our hero’s wife Elspeth, Lady Flashman, herself – still gorgeous and sexy in her sixties!
The third novella, Flashman and the Tiger itself, is a rewrite of a short story Fraser originally published in 1975. It includes both a flashback to Flashman’s breathtaking adventures in the Zulu War, climaxing in Rorke’s Drift (you didn’t think he’d miss that one, did you?), and an Arthur Conan Doyle style mystery story involving the infamous Colonel John Sebastian Moran (a.k.a. "Tiger Jack"), whom Sherlock Holmes found such a formidable opponent. We trust you’ll be surprised and amused at the plot twists! This is a fun, fun little piece.
We sincerely hope that Fraser intends to continue the Flashman series – whether as novels or novellas. Unlike many historical novelists, Fraser is a master of the novella form and we would welcome more Flashman novellas, if only to solve some of the still unexplained mysteries in that glorious anti-hero’s career. The new book continues to drop tantalizing hints of books to come – Flashman’s involvement in the Mexican revolution, his affair with the two great beauties Lily Langtry and Daisy, Countess of Warwick, his on-and-off friendships with the Prince of Wales and Oscar Wilde, his adventures with Gordon in the Sudan, etc., etc., etc. And, of course, more hints about his double-agent work in the American Civil War. Still, alas, no word on when Flashman’s Civil War adventures will be written. Fraser’s own reply: "When I feel like it."
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