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Supercad

FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER A Novel; By George Macdonald Fraser; Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $25

September 10, 2000|PETER GREEN | Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph

In 1857, Thomas Hughes wrote "Tom Brown's Schooldays," a fictional account of his school days at Rugby School and the "muscular Christianity" instilled there by the redoubtable Dr. Arnold (Matthew Arnold's father). In sharp contrast to the idealistic Tom Brown, Hughes drew his villain, Flashman, coward and school bully, the vulgar antithesis of Arnold's vision. Just over 30 years ago, George Macdonald Fraser had the inspired notion of rescuing Flashman from oblivion and pursuing him through a lurid military career as the quintessential anti-hero. Still the coward, always ready to cut and run, Flashman somehow convinces everyone of his heroism, so that he ends up as a knighted brigadier general, covered with medals and honors (including the Victoria Cross), even though his true prowess has been restricted to bonking an amazing number of titled and famous ladies.

Hughes must be turning in his high-minded Victorian grave as the old reprobate continues to tangle with kings and bring in the royalties. Fraser has cleverly kept his Victorian supercad at arm's length by positing the existence of a large posthumous cache of "Flashman Papers." From these he continues to extract first-person adventures recounted by Flashy himself, a device that lets him pull out all the stops on his military bounder's mid-Victorian "have-some-Madeira-m'dear" narrative style.

Though this V.C.'s record under fire would make Falstaff and the Duke of Plaza-Toro look like heroes by comparison, he certainly turns up in all the celebrated 19th century hot spots during his variegated career: Cawnpore and Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny, Balaclava and Sevastopol at the time of the Crimean War, Harper's Ferry and the Little Bighorn, China (the Taiping Rebellion), Mexico (Juarez's revolution)--Flashman has done a funk-and-bunk from them all, somehow gaining increments of glory in the process. A major with the Union forces in 1862, he's promoted to staff colonel by the Confederacy a year later. He also hobnobs with the great: aide-de-camp to the Emperor Maximilian, political advisor to Bismarck, chief of staff to the White Rajah of Sarawak, adjutant to John Brown. Been there, done that.

So what has Flashy been up to this time? We have three separate novellas, of which "Flashman and the Tiger" is certainly the funniest. This involves a foray by Sir Harry not only into history (this time the Zulu War) but also--a delectable cuckoo fouling someone else's literary nest--into the pages of classic fiction. During the Zulu campaign he's rescued by one "Tiger Jack" Moran, the best shot in the Indian Army. Sound familiar? Years later, in London, they meet again. Moran, who didn't know his identity in South Africa, turns out to bear him a deadly grudge from a long-ago encounter and sets up a scenario of blackmail, for which the price is the honor of Flashman's daughter. Grumbling, Flashman sets out to stalk Moran with the intention of murdering him. The pursuit leads to an empty house, where Moran assembles a curious gun and proceeds to shoot a figure silhouetted behind a blind in the house opposite. Getting warm? The would-be assassin is then wrestled to the ground by two characters who, in Flashman's words, "looked like a poet and a bailiff" as whistles blow and the police close in. Still baffled? Try "The Adventure of the Empty House" in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Return of Sherlock Holmes."

Conan Doyle isn't the only novelist whose territory Flashman invades. The longest novella, "The Road to Charing Cross," is an ultra-Ruritanian extravaganza involving our anti-hero in a convoluted plot by Hungarian nationalists to assassinate the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Here we encounter a dandified aristocratic villain, Count Rupert Willem von Starnberg, whose manner, appearance, swordsmanship, athleticism and pet turns of speech, like his father Rudi's in an earlier novel, all so powerfully resemble those of Anthony Hope's Rupert of Hentzau. For a while, I thought I'd caught Fraser out in an anachronism, because "The Prisoner of Zenda" came out in 1894, whereas "The Road to Charing Cross" is set a decade earlier. But wouldn't you know it, Fraser as "editor" notes Flashman's claim to have told his adventures to Hope--who then modeled Hentzau on Rudi-Rupert!

Ever since 1969, I have found this series an irresistible delight, and "Flashman and the Tiger" is Fraser at his vintage best. The obligatory bonkings, one of them in a couchette on the maiden run of the Orient Express, are as vigorous, and harmless, as ever. One of the best and most eccentric characters, Henri Stefan Blowitz, Paris correspondent of the London Times and unrivaled political scoopmeister, is drawn, with meticulous accuracy, from life (Bismarck once looked under the table before a meeting to make sure Blowitz wasn't hiding there). And what happens at Charing Cross station? Flashman, returned from Europe, is gathered up on the last page and carried off in the boat-train by mad Gen. "Chinese" Gordon. Destination? Khartoum, where else? To be continued, one hopes, in Fraser's next. An ideal read for either beach or bed.

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