The Flashman series of novels are great fun, a series of adventures by a cowardly cad actively trying to avoid them. Yet somehow Harry Flashman manages to get himself involved in most of the major conflicts of the nineteenth century, and attain a thoroughly undeserved reputation of valour. The books are well researched, with plenty of footnotes pretending to be annotating Flashman’s own manuscript, and Flashman’s first-person narration is humorous and engaging.
He’s also a fictional character, in that he’s the adult version of the bully Flashman in ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ by Thomas Hughes. This hasn’t been used as an excuse to introduce other characters from books until now. For it starts at the battle of Isandhlwana in the Anglo-Zulu war, where Flashman manages to survive by stealing a horse from one of his own men. He makes it to the mission station of Rorke’s Drift, just in time to participate in the famous Defence. While there he meets a terrifyingly good sharpshooter: ‘Tiger Jack’ Moran, a villain from the Sherlock Holmes universe.
Unlike most of the Flashman stories the Battle of Rorke’s Drift isn’t dwelt on, as the story shifts from 1879 to 1894. Flashman, now an ennobled gentleman, has a granddaughter who’s about to be married. The granddaughter then tells him that Moran has approached her with receipts of the fiance’s gambling debts. The price for silence is her maidenhead.
Flashman is outraged by this, and vows to stop Moran one way or another. He stalks Moran through London, knowing that the sharpshooter would still be his superior in any attack. But as it happens the events of the story are taking place at the same time as Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Empty House…’
I admit this is one of the weaker Flashman stories. Even by the standards of his cowardice, Flashman achieves little. But it’s still enjoyable, the peril has an appropriate pay-off at the end, and I love the moment when, disguised, he encounters Holmes. Flashman has had such a varied life that when Holmes tries to deduce his past through his appearance, the Great Detective gets it spectacularly wrong.
Opening lines: You think twice about committing murder when you’re over seventy. Mind you, it’s not something I’ve ever undertaken lightly, for all that I must have sent several score of the Queen’s enemies to their accounts in my time, to say nothing of various bad men and oddbodies who’ve had the misfortune to cross me when my trigger-finger was jumpy. More than a hundred, easy, I should think – which ain’t a bad tally for a true-blue coward who’d sooner shirk a fight than eat his dinner, and has run from more battle-fields than he can count. I’ve been lucky, I suppose – and devilish quick.
Flashman and the Tiger by George Macdonald Fraser
Availability: print only
Word count: 16,400
Series: Flashman (prior knowledge not compulsory, but it’s preferable)
First published: Flashman and the Tiger, collection, 1999, HarperCollins