Review – King of New York
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George MacDonald Fraser, 82, author of 'Flashman' novels January 3, 2008
By Margalit Fox
George MacDonald Fraser, a British writer whose popular novels about the
arch-rogue Harry Flashman followed their hero as he galloped, swashbuckled,
drank and womanized his way through many of the signal events of the 19th
century, died Wednesday on the Isle of Man. He was 82 and had made his home
there in recent years. The cause was cancer, said Vivienne Schuster, his
British literary agent.
Over nearly four decades, Fraser produced a dozen rollicking picaresques
centering on Flashman. The novels purport to be installments in a
multivolume "memoir," known collectively as the Flashman Papers, in which
the hero details his prodigious exploits in battle, with the bottle, and in
bed. In the process, Fraser cheerfully punctured the enduring ideal of a
long-vanished era in which men were men, tea was strong and the sun never
set on the British Empire.
The Flashman Papers include, among other titles, "Flashman" (World
Publishing, 1969); "Flashman in the Great Game" (Knopf, 1975); and, most
recently, "Flashman on the March" (Knopf, 2005).
The second volume in the series, "Royal Flash" (Knopf, 1970), was made into
a film of the same title in 1975, starring Malcolm McDowell as Flashman.
In what amounted to an act of literary retribution, Fraser plucked Flashman
from the pages of "Tom Brown's School Days," Thomas Hughes's classic novel
of English public-school life published in 1857. In that book, Tom, the
innocent young hero, repeatedly falls prey to a sadistic bully named
In Fraser's hands, the cruel, handsome Flashman is all grown up and in the
British Army, serving in India, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Now Brigadier
General Sir Harry Paget Flashman, he is a master equestrian, a pretty fair
duelist and a polyglot who can pitch woo in a spate of foreign tongues. He
is also a scoundrel, a drunk, a liar, a cheat, a braggart and a coward. (A
favorite combat strategy is to take credit for a victory from which he has
actually run away.)
Last, but most assuredly not least, Flashman is a serial adulterer who by
Volume 9 of the series has bedded 480 women. (That Flashman is married
himself, to the fair, dimwitted Elspeth, is no impediment. She cuckolds him
left and right, in any case.)
Readers adored him. Today, the Internet is populated with a bevy of Flashman
fan sites. Flashman's exploits take him to some of the most epochal events
of his time, from British colonial campaigns to the American Civil War, in
which he magnanimously serves on both the Union and the Confederate sides.
He rubs up against eminences like Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde, Florence
Nightingale and Abraham Lincoln. For his work, Flashman earns a string of
preposterous awards, including a knighthood, the Victoria Cross and the
Medal of Honor.
Fraser was so skilled as a mock memoirist that he had some early readers
fooled. Writing in The New York Times in 1969 after the first novel was
published, Alden Whitman said:
"So far, 'Flashman' has had 34 reviews in the United States. Ten of these
found the book to be genuine autobiography."
The son of Scottish parents, George MacDonald Fraser was born on April 2,
1925, in Carlisle, England, near the Scottish border. His boyhood reading,
like that of nearly every British boy of his generation, included "Tom
Brown's School Days."
In World War II, Fraser served in India and Burma with the Border Regiment.
His memoir of the war in Burma, "Quartered Safe Out Here" (Harvill), was
published in 1993.
After leaving the military, Fraser embarked on a journalism career, working
for newspapers in England, Canada and Scotland. He eventually became the
assistant editor of The Glasgow Herald and, in the 1960s, was briefly its
Tiring of newspaper work, Fraser decided, as he later said in interviews, to
"write my way out" with an original Victorian novel.
In a flash, he remembered Flashman, and the first book tumbled out in the
evenings after work.
"In all, it took 90 hours, no advance plotting, no revisions, just tea and
toast and cigarettes at the kitchen table," he said in an interview quoted
in the reference work "Authors and Artists for Young Adults."
His other books include several non-Flashman novels, among them "Mr.
American" (Simon & Schuster, 1980); "The Pyrates" (Knopf, 1984); and "Black
Ajax" (HarperCollins, 1997). With Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson,
Fraser wrote the screenplay for the James Bond film "Octopussy," released in
Fraser's latest book, "The Reavers," a non-Flashman novel, is scheduled to
be published by Knopf in April.