Fraser, George MacDonald. Flashman.

NY: World, 1969.

Harry Flashman is a coward, a cad, and a bounder. And not only does he know it, he brags on it. We first met him as a supporting character — a bully, evicted from the school — in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but that was just the beginning of a very successful life for Flashman, . . . if you ignore the sheer terror, the occasional torture, and the frequent lack of money. He always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — and he always comes out of such predicaments smelling of roses and having medals pinned on his tunic.

He’s a very, very lucky man — which is perhaps more important for a soldier than bravery. In this first volume of the “Flashman Papers,” Flashy is rather pleased to have been expelled from Rugby and talks his father into buying him a lieutenant’s commission in the dragoons. He picks a nice stay-at-home regiment but, naturally, he shortly finds himself in India. Then he gets sucked into Gen. Elphinstone’s relief column to Kabul, which fell prey to one of the most complete and most embarrassing military disasters in British history, all of it the result of cooperation among several of England’s most incompetent military and civil leaders. Fraser does an excellent job with accurate historical detail, painting a detailed picture of exactly what happened and why. And he documents it all in the footnotes. (You can learn a lot of history from this series. Really.) Flashman himself is not terribly likeable but one can sympathize with him to a surprising degree. He may be a reluctant adventurer but he’s a survivor, and he has a way with women, too. And he’s a thoroughgoing cynic but also a realist and first-rate observer, and he doesn’t pull any punches regarding himself. And since he’s writing these memoirs circa 1914, when he’s in his 80s, he has tremendous perspective. This series has acquired an enthusiastic fan base over the years and it’s well deserved. And the Charge of the Light Brigade and Little Big Horn are still to come!

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