"Flashman and the Tiger," by George MacDonald Fraser. Knopf. 347 pages. $25.
Not everyone gets to be present at the creation. Many an inveterate reader discovers the existence of a series by stumbling onto a volume in the middle of the sequence. Just so, "Flashman and the Tiger" comes to hand, bringing with it the discovery that George MacDonald Fraser as been publishing the supposed memoirs of Sir Harry Flashman in a series of historical novels over the past 30 years.
Sir Harry Flashman, V.C., K.C.B., &c.;, &c.;, is a familiar type, the Amusing Rascal, whom Fraser describes as "the celebrated Victorian soldier, scoundrel, amorist and self-confessed poltroon." He is a born coward with a totally undeserved reputation for military valor, an apparently inexhaustible rake and a beguiling narrator of his own adventures.
He is at pains to contrast himself with more conventional military men, such as "General Binks and Colonel Snook," who retire "to Cheltenham with a couple of wounds and barely enough to pay the club subscription, foot the memsahib's whist bill, send Adolphus to a crammer 'cos the Wellington fees are beyond them, and afford a drunken loafer to neglect the garden of Ramilles or Quatre Bras or whatever they choose to call their infernal villas."
These exploits run through the major events of the second half of the 19th century: Flashman at the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimea when the misinterpreted orders of the senile Lord Raglan send the Light Brigade to destruction, Flashman at Isandhlwana when the Zulus break the British square, Flashman at Little Big Horn. Flashman also appears to have been in on every major diplomatic intrigue in Europe and in the boudoirs of more celebrated beauties than can be conveniently counted. (Fraser supplies succinct notes on the historical circumstances that underpin the stories.)
"Flashman and the Tiger" presents three adventures. The longest, "The Road to Charing Cross," is a diplomatic intrigue that combines the convoluted schemes of Otto von Bismarck, an effort to preserve the Hapsburg dynasty from collapse, and two - yes, two - randy beauties. (The references to "jutting young bumpers" and the like may establish your tolerance for Sir Harry's racy British artistocratic/military slang.)
The second, "The Subtleties of Baccarat," presents a far more serious problem than the threat of a general European war: an accusation of cheating at cards at an English country house. The brief title story pits Flashman against the vicious Col. John Sebastian Moran, whom you may remember from the narratives of another fictional Victorian, Dr. John Watson. A deft little twist at the end involves the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.
Along the way, the reader is treated to a series of minor delights - General Grant on his post-presidential European tour meeting the equally taciturn Marshal Macmahon in Paris, a loopy half-paragraph of the imagined conversation of Queen Victoria, an exchange of insults with Oscar Wilde.
By the time of these adventures, Flashman is getting old, at the age to "seek solace in booze, baccy, and books." The most reliable pleasure lies in the third, and George MacDonald Fraser has enriched the supply.
John E. McIntyre, no stranger to booze, baccy and books himself, is The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk and a vice president of the American Copy Editors Society.