Favorite Novels Set in the OLD WEST

ram-trucks-old-west-ad-campaign-ram-box

Below is a list of my favorite novels set in the Old West:

 

FAVORITE NOVELS SET IN THE OLD WEST

1 - Flashman and the Redskins

1. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1982) by George MacDonald Fraser – This seventh novel in George MacDonald Fraser’sFlashman Papers details British Army officer Harry Flashman’s experiences on the emigrant trail during the California Gold Rush and the Great Sioux War of 1876, some 26-27 years later.

2 - Centennial

2. “Centennial” (1974) by James A. Michener – This epic novel spans two centuries into the history of the northeastern plains of Colorado, which includes the fictional town of Centennial.

3 - The Furies

3. “The Furies” (1976) by John Jakes – This fourth novel in John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles tells the story of Amanda Kent’s experiences between 1836 and 1852, during the Battle of the Alamo in Texas, the California Gold Rush and the abolitionist movement in New York City.

4 - Ride the River

4. “Ride the River” (1983) by Louis L’Amour – This addition to Louis L’Amour’s Sackett Family series tells the story of 16 year-old Echo Sackett, who leaves her East Tennessee home to claim a family fortune and keep it out of the hands of murderous thieves throughout the Ohio River Valley.

5 - Heaven and Hell

5. “Heaven and Hell” (1987) by John Jakes – This third entry in John Jakes’ North and South Trilogy concludes the experiences of the Hazard and Main families, following the end of the Civil War. The novel mainly focuses on Madeline Main’s struggles during the early years of Reconstruction and Charles Main’s experiences with the U.S. Army in the West.

6 - Lonesome Dove

6. “Lonesome Dove” (1985) by Larry McMurty – This award-winning novel chronicles the adventures of several retired Texas Rangers, while driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana.

7 - The Warriors

7. “The Warriors” (1977) by John Jakes – This sixth entry in John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles tells the story of members of the Kent family during the Western Campaign of the Civil War in 1864, the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the Erie War and the rise of unions.

8 - True Grit

8. “True Grit” (1968) by Charles Portis – This highly acclaimed novel tells the story of 14 year-old Mattie Ross, who recruits U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to help her seek retribution for the murder of her father by a scoundrel named Tom Chaney.

9 - Forgiving

9. “Forgiving” (1991) by LaVyrle Spencer – This romantic tale tells the story of a young St. Louis journalist, who arrives in 1876 Deadwood following the death of her father, to mend family ties with a younger sister who had ran away, five years ago. She ends up falling in love with the local sheriff and discovering a shocking secret about her family.

10 - The Daybreakers

10. “The Daybreakers” (1960) by Louis L’Amour – This addition to Louis L’Amour’s Sackett Family series tells the story of Tyrel and Orrin Sackett, who head west to flee a family feud in Eastern Tennessee.

Advertisements

“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

PRISIONERO_DE_ZENDA_1937

 

“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

I realize that many film critics and fans would agree with my suspicion that the 1930s saw a great deal of action films released to theaters. In fact, I believe there were as high number of actions films released back then as they are now. Among the type of action films that flourished during that era were swashbucklers. 

One of the most famous Hollywood swashbucklers released during the 1930s was “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, producer David O. Selznick’s 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel. This tale of middle European political intrigue and identity theft has been either remade or spoofed countless of times over the years. One of the most famous spoofs included George MacDonald Fraser’s 1970 Flashman novel called “Royal Flash”. But if one asked many moviegoers which adaptation comes to mind, I believe many would point out Selznick’s 1937 movie.

Directed by John Cromwell, the movie began with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll’s arrival in the kingdom of Ruritania in time for the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. The English visitor’s looks attract a great deal of attention from some of the country’s populace and eventually from the new king and the latter’s two aides. The reason behind this attention is due to the fact that not only are the Briton and the Ruritanian monarch are distant cousins, they can also pass for identical twins. King Rudolf invites Rassendyll to the royal hunting lodge for dinner with him and his aides – Colonel Sapt and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. They celebrate their acquaintance by drinking late into the night. Rudolf is particularly delighted with the bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother, Duke Michael, and drinks it all himself. The next morning brings disastrous discoveries – the wine was drugged and King Rudolf cannot be awakened in time to attend his coronation. Fearing that Duke Michael will try to usurp the throne, Colonel Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the ceremony.

While watching “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, it became easy for me to see why it has become regarded as one of the best swashbucklers of the 1930s. Selznick, its array of credited and uncredited screenwriters, and director John Cromwell did an excellent job of transferring Anthony Hope’s tale to the screen. This certainly seemed to be the case from a technical point-of-view. Selznick managed to gather a talented cast that more than did justice to Hope’s literary characters. The movie also benefited from Alfred Newman’s stirring score, which received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. Lyle R. Wheeler received the first of his 24 Academy Award nominations for the movie’s art designs, which exquisitely re-created Central Europe of the late 19th century. His works was enhanced by Jack Cosgrove’s special effects and the photography of both James Wong Howe and an uncredited Bert Glennon. And I was very impressed by Ernest Dryden’s re-creation of 1890s European fashion in his costume designs.

The performances featured in “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” struck me as outstanding. Not only was Mary Astor charming as Duke Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, she also did an excellent job in conveying Mademoiselle de Mauban’s love for Michael and her desperation to do anything to keep him safe for herself. C. Aubrey Smith gave one of his better performances as the weary and level-headed royal aide, Colonel Sapt, whose love for his country and the throne outweighed his common sense and disappointment in his new king. David Niven gave the film its funniest performance as junior royal aide, Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. Not only did I find his comedy style memorable, but also subtle. Raymond Massey’s performance as King Rudolf’s illegitimate half-brother, Duke Michael, struck me as very interesting. On one hand, Massey smoldered with his usual air of menace. Yet, he also did an excellent job of conveying Michael’s resentment of his illegitimate status and disgust over his half-brother’s dissolute personality.

However, I feel that the best performances came from Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I read that the latter originally wanted the dual roles of Rassendyll and King Rudolf . . . and was disappointed when Colman won the roles. But he received advice from C. Aubrey Smith to accept the Rupert of Hentzau role, considered the best by many. Smith proved to be right. Fairbanks gave the best performance in the movie as the charming and witty villain, who served as Duke Michael’s main henchman, while attempting to seduce the latter’s mistress. Madeleine Carroll could have easily portrayed Princess Flavia as a dull, yet virtuous beauty. Instead, the actress superbly portrayed the princess as an emotionally starved woman, who harbored resentment toward her royal cousin Rudolf for years of his contemptuous treatment toward her; and who blossomed from Rassendyll’s love. Although I believe that Fairbanks Jr. gave the movie’s best performance, I cannot deny that Ronald Colman served as the movie’s backbone in his excellent portrayals of both Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and Ruritania King Rudolf V. Without resorting to any theatrical tricks or makeup, Colman effortlessly portrayed two distant cousins with different personalities. “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” marked the third movie I have seen starring Colman. I believe I am finally beginning to realize what a superb actor he truly was.

Before my raptures over “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” get the best of me, I feel I have to point out a few aspects of the movie that I found troubling. Selznick International released three movies in 1937. Two of them had been filmed in Technicolor and one, in black-and-white. I do not understand why Selznick had decided that “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” would be the only one filmed in black-and-white. This movie practically begged for Technicolor. Surely he could have allowed either “A STAR IS BORN” or “NOTHING SACRED” in black-and-white. For a movie that is supposed to be a swashbuckler, it seemed to lack a balanced mixture of dramatic narrative and action. During my viewing of the movie, I noticed that aside from Colonel Sapt forcing the royal lodge’s cook, Frau Holf, into drinking the rest of the drugged wine; there was no real action until past the movie’s mid-point. And speaking of the action, I found it . . . somewhat tolerable. The minor sequence featuring Rupert’s first attempt at killing Rassendyll, the latter’s efforts to save King Rudolf from assassination at Duke Michael’s castle near Zenda, and the charge led by Sapt at the castle struck me as solid. But I found the sword duel between Rassendyll and Rupert rather disappointing. Both Colman and Fairbanks spent more time talking than fighting. I found myself wondering if the constant conversation was a means used by Cromwell to hide the poor choreography featured in the sword fight.

I do not think I would ever view “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as one of my favorite swashbucklers of all time. But despite some of the disappointing action sequences, I still believe that its drama and suspense, along with a superb cast led by Ronald Colman, made it a first-rate movie and one of the best produced by David O. Selznick.

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) Book Review

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) Book Review

Out of all the books featured in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, only one featured more than one tale. This turned out to be “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER”, first published in 1999. Instead of one novel, the book contained three novellas featuring an aging Harry Flashman between the ages of 56 and 72. 

As I had stated earlier, “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” featured three novellas – “The Road to Charing Cross”“The Subtleties of Baccarat”, and “Flashman and the Tiger”. The first story deals with Flashman involved in a plot to thwart the assassination of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef. The second involves the infamous Tranby Croft Scandal, which involved the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and someone close to Flashman. And the third story featured Flashman’s encounters with the villainous Tiger Jack Moran during the Anglo-Zulu War, and later in London of the 1890s. Let us begin . . . shall we?

“The Road to Charing Cross”

The longest novella in the book, “The Road to Charing Cross” begins in 1878, when Flashman is invited by the famous journalist, Henri Blowitz, to help get a copy of the Treaty of Berlin. During his trip to Germany, Flashman will a beautiful member of the French Secret Service named Caprice. Five years later in 1883, Flashy is invited by Blowitz to journey on the inaugural trip of the Orient Express. Flashman accepts the invitation as an excuse to avoid being sent to the Sudan. During the train journey, he is introduced to Princess Kralta of Germany, who has expressed interest in him of the romantic nature. As it turns out, Kralta’s interest in Flashman is nothing more than a ruse devised by his old nemesis from , Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in order to get the British Army officer to help prevent Emperor Franz Josef from being assassinated and prevent a major European war. One of Flashman’s colleagues in this plot turns out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Rudi von Starnberg, another former nemesis from the 1970 novel. In the end, it turns out that von Starnberg has other plans of his own.

For me, “The Road to Charing Cross” turned out to be the best of three novellas. Regardless of its length, I thought it was a well-written adventure set during the political upheavals of Central Europe. Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating the first rail journey of the Orient Express. He must have did his homework in researching this piece of history. And the sequence featuring Flashman’s efforts to save the Austrian emperor and his own hide were truly outstanding. His characterizations of Princess Kralta, Henri Blowitz, and Emperor Franz Josef were first-rate. Fraser’s pièce de résistanceturned out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Flashman’s old nemesis, Rudi von Starnberg. Dear old Willy turned out to be a chip off the old block . . . and a lot more. He possessed Rudi’s wit, joie de vivre and ruthlessness.

Did “The Road to Charing Cross” have any flaws? Well . . . it had one. And that flaw had a lot to do with the character of Willem von Starnberg. Although Willem was well written by Fraser, the latter described him as being half-German (Prussian) and half-Hungarian. Which meant that according to this story, Rudi von Starnberg was Austrian. Apparently, George MacDonald Fraser seemed incapable of determining Rudi’s nationality. Fraser described him as an Austrian in“Royal Flash”, as a Hungarian in the 1975 movie adaptation of the novel, and as a German in this story. Whatever. Despite this major flaw, “The Road to Charing Cross” is still an excellent story.

“The Subtleties of Baccarat”

This novella finds Sir Harry Flashman and his wife, Elspeth, Lady Flashman; visiting Tranby Croft, the estate of one Sir Arthur Wilson in early September 1890. Sir Arthur is hosting a house party in honor of his royal visitor, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. During the house party, both Flashman and Elspeth witness a baccarat game, which was considered illegal in Britain. The legalities were brushed aside, due to the Prince of Wales’ love of the game. During the days between September 8 and 9, several guests claimed that one of the players, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, cheating. Guests informed the Prince of Wales, who confronted Gordon-Cumming. To the very end, the latter claimed that he was innocent and even sued the Prince of Wales and a few others for defamation of character. Alas, the label of cheat stuck and Gordon-Cummings became a social pariah. But “The Subtleties of Baccarat” did not end with Gordon-Cumming’s downfall. Instead, it ended with a surprising revelation that left Flashman in total shock.

“The Subtleties of Baccarat” was an interesting little tale. But I cannot say that I would ever love it. At least most of the story. The problem is that I am not a card player. And I found it difficult to follow the card games, while the scandal unfolded. It was not until Flashman learned the truth about the scandal from the surprising figure of Elspeth that the story truly became interesting to me. If I must be honest, Elspeth’s revelations on what really happened during the baccarat games not only shocked me, but made me become an even bigger fan of Lady Flashman. The novella had a surprising, yet satisfying finale to an otherwise bearable story.

“Flashman and the Tiger”

The book derived its title from its third novella set in both 1879 and 1894. “Flashman and the Tiger” is mainly about Flashman’s encounters with a character named Tiger Jack Moran, who had been originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his SHERLOCK HOLMES stories. Flashman first meets Moran during the Zulu War, when both experience the retreat from the Battle of Isandlwana and the defense of Rorke’s Drift. The pair does not meet again until fifteen years later, when Flashman discovers that Moran is blackmailing his granddaughter, Selina, in order to sleep with her. Moran turns out to be a cabin boy (who had propositioned Flashy) on Captain John Charity Spring’s ship, the Balliol College, who had been traded to King Gezo as a white slave in the 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. Moran spent years seeking revenge against the surviving crewmen. He found his opportunity to seek revenge against Flashman, when he learned that the latter’s engaged granddaughter was a mistress of the Prince of Wales. The story ended with Moran’s arrest and Flashman’s brief, yet humorous encounter with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

This novella was a problem for me. One, I found the addition of Flashman’s experiences during the Zulu War unnecessary. Fraser could have used the Zulu War as a major novel, instead of adding this useless scene that really had little to do with the main narrative. What made the use of this topic even more unnecessary was that Flashman’s first encounter with Moran occurred in 1848, aboard Captain Charity Spring’s ship. It was this encounter that a much bigger impact on the story. I have the deep suspicion that Fraser used this story as an excuse to indulge in a little Imperial flag waving. After all, “Flashman and the Tiger” did not focus on the Battle of Isandlwana, in which the British suffered one of their worst defeats at the hands of the Zulu. Instead, it focused on the following battle at Rorke’s Drift, in which the British managed to repel several attacks by the enemy.

My second problem with this novella was the fact that Fraser used Tiger Jack Moran, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson as supporting characters. I found that rather cheap. I found it bad enough that Fraser used Sir Anthony Hope’s novel, “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as a premise for his 1970 novel, “ROYAL FLASH” and a historical character as Flashman’s love child in “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. But using literary characters created by another author as supporting characters in one’s own story? Hmmm . . . cheap.

Finally, Fraser must have done a piss poor job in researching the love life of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. The latter’s mistresses were usually sexually experienced women who were either married society women, actresses or prostitutes. I do not recall the Prince of Wales ever taking the virginity of a 19 year-old debutante . . . especially one who was engaged. Yet, we are supposed to believe that Flashman’s unmarried granddaughter was one of Bertie the Bounder’s mistresses. The only redeeming trait of this story was Fraser’s description of the Isandlwana retreat and the Defense of Rorke’s Drift. Apparently, he saved all of his top-notch research for this particular sequence.

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” was not a bad piece of literature from George MacDonald Fraser’s pen. It possessed a first-rate novella, “The Road to Charing Cross”, and a mildly entertaining story with a juicy, surprise ending in “The Subtleties of Baccarat”. The book’s only misstep . . . at least for me . . . proved to be the last story, “Flashman and Tiger”.

“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” (2011) Review

“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” (2011) Review

Following the success of his 2009 movie, “SHERLOCK HOLMES”, Guy Ritchie returned to helm a sequel about 19th century detective Sherlock Holmes’ battle with his famous arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. Both Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles of Holmes and Dr. John Watson. 

Loosely adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 short story called, “The Final Problem”“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” picks up sometime after the end of the 2009 movie. Thanks to Irene Adler’s disclosure of the mastercriminal, Sherlock Holmes has been investigating Moriarty’s activities. The latter brings him to the attention of Irene, who is still working as an agent for the professor. He follows Irene to an auction, where she delivers a package to a Dr. Hoffmanstahl as payment for a letter he was to deliver to Moriarty. The package holds not only money, but a bomb that would have killed Hoffmanstahl, if Holmes had not intervened. Unfortunately, Hoffmanstahl is assassinated upon leaving the auction house. And when Irene meets with Professor Moriarty to explain the events, he poisons her, deeming her compromised by her love for Holmes.

Holmes reveals to his friend and colleague, Dr. Watson, that Moriarty might be connected to a series of murders, terrorist attacks and business acquisitions. During Watson’s bachelor party, Holmes meets with the Gypsy fortune-teller Simza, the intended recipient of the letter he had taken from Adler. It was sent by Simza’s brother Rene, who has been working for Moriarty. Holmes defeats an assassin who had been sent to kill her. Later, Holmes meets with Moriarty after Watson’s wedding to Mary Morstan. Moriarty informs Holmes that he murdered Adler and will kill Watson and Mary if Holmes’ interference continues. After Holmes help Watson and Mary fight off attack by Moriarty’s men aboard a train during their honeymoon, the two men travel to Paris to find Simza. Their journey to Paris, Germany and Switzerland lead them to uncover a plot by Moriarty to instigate a world war and profit from it. This plot will be set off by an assassination at a peace conference in Switzerland.

Although the movie was a hit at the box office, it received mixed reviews from the critics. A good number of them and moviegoers claimed that although it was entertaining, it was not as good as the first movie. In my review of“SHERLOCK HOLMES”, I made it clear that I enjoyed it very much. And I still do. But after watching “SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS”, I realized that the villain’s plot featured in the first movie struck me as a little . . . illogical. Using the illusion of sorcery to assume control of the British Empire? James Moriarty’s plot to assume control of the arms market in Europe and instigate a world war for profit strikes me as a lot more logical. And James Moriarty made a scarier villain than Lord Blackwood.

Another advantage that this sequel has over the first film, was the change of location in the second half – from Paris to Germany and later, Switzerland. I loved it. The color, squalor and grandeur that production designer Sarah Greenwood, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and the visual effects team created for Victorian London in “SHERLOCK HOLMES”, were not only re-created for the same setting in this new movie, but for also late 19th century Paris, Germany and Switzerland. My only quibble about the movie’s German setting is that Kieran and Michele Mulroney’s script failed to inform moviegoers the name of the German town where Holmes, Watson and Simza found themselves.

One outstanding sequence featured a gunfight between Holmes, Watson and Mary and Moriarty’s men, disguised as British Army troops. Not only did I find it very exciting, I especially enjoyed that last shot of a half-destroyed train racing forward, with Holmes and Watson staring ahead. But the real outstanding sequence featured the heroes’ flightfrom Moriarty’s German arsenal through heavy woods. Yes, Rousselot used slow motion photography during this sequence. A good number of people did complain about it. But you know what? Not only did it fail to bother me, I actually enjoyed it. And watching this sequence made me realize that I would love to see a war movie directed by Ritchie.

As in the first movie, the cast was outstanding. Rachel McAdams returned to give a beguiling, yet brief performance as the doomed Irene Adler. As much as I love this movie, I am PISSED OFF that Ritchie had her character killed. Paul Anderson was very effective as Moriarty’s henchman, villainous marksman Colonel Sebastian Moran. By the way, this same character was used by late author George MacDonald Fraser in two of his books, the 1971 novel “Flash For Freedom!” and the 1999 novella “Flashman and the Tiger”. Geraldine James made an amusingly brief appearance as Holmes’ beleaguered landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Stephen Fry gave a hilarious performance as Holmes’ equally brilliant and arrogant older brother, Mycroft. His scenes with Kelly Reilly especially had me in stitches. I was happy to see that Reilly had more to do in this movie, first as one of Moriarty’s intended victims, and later as an assistant to Mycroft, as they help Holmes and Watson stop the master criminal. I am a little mystified that Eddie Marsan maanged to receive such a high billing as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade in the end credits by only speaking one line.

Noomie Rapace was passionate in her portrayal of the Gypsy Simza, who is determined to prevent her brother from makingt the mistake of getting caught up in Moriarty’s plot. Jared Harris made a subtle and scary villain in his portrayal of Professor James Moriarty. At first, he did not seem that threatening – almost mild mannered. I supposed this was due to Ritchie and the Mulroneys’ decision to give the character a position in society as a reputable scholar within Europe’s diplomatic community. Bit by bit, Harris peeled back Moriarty’s greed and penchant for sadism.

I am trying to find the words about Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. I really am. But what can I say? I know . . . they were perfect. They really were. I am not claiming that they were the best to ever portray the two characters. Frankly, I cannot name any one screen team as the best to portray Holmes and Watson. Some might claim Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Others might claim Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, or the recent television pairing of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. I refuse to claim that Downey Jr. and Law were better than the other three teams. But I do not believe any of them were better than Downey Jr. and Law. What was their best scene together? Hmmm . . . I find I cannot name one particular scene. Every time they were together, they were magic.

Do I have any complaints about the movie? Well, I did not care for Irene Adler’s death, considering the character was a favorite of mine. I found the fight scene between Holmes and Irene’s bodyguards a bit confusing and contrived. I wish that Ritchie and the Mulrooney had clarified the name of the German town where Moriarty’s arsenal was located. And I finally wish that after the mental strategies of their upcoming fight on one of the balconies at Reichenbach Castle, Holmes and Moriarty’s actual fight had lasted a lot longer before the detective pulled his surprise move.

I believe I have said all I could about “SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS”. Even though I had a few complaints, I ended up enjoying the movie anyway. Hell, I loved it. The movie became my favorite 2011 movie. Although I had slight doubts, once again, Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law managed to create magic for another Sherlock Holmes adventure.

“FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975) Book Review

Below is my attempt at a review of the late George MacDonald Fraser’s fifth installment in his highly acclaimed series, The Flashman Papers – FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975)

 

“FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975) Book Review

That great fictional bully and poltroon, Harry Flashman, once said. ”Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye and helpless, and there’s no end to it,” in one of George MacDonald Fraser’s installments of The Flashman Papers – a series of novels written in memoir form about a British Army officer in Victorian Britain. Well Fraser certainly proved that momentous statement in the series’ fifth installment, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. First published in 1975, the novel featured Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion aka the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858). 

In order to understand Flashman’s encounters with certain characters in the story, one must remember one thing – ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” is a direct sequel to the series’ fourth novel, ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973). At least two characters featured in the novel about the Crimean War also appeared in ”GREAT GAME” – Count Nicholas Ignatieff, a ruthless Russian intelligence office; and a former schoolmate of Flashman’s named Harry “Scud” East, who had also been a fellow prisoner-of-war of Flashman during the Crimean War.

The Sepoy Rebellion had been a bloody and emotional conflict for both Britons and Indians alike. It began as an uprising of sepoys of the British East India Company’s army on May 10, 1857, in the town of Meerut, and soon erupted into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and the Delhi region. The rebellion posed a considerable threat to Company power in that region, and it was contained only with the fall of Gwalior on June 20, 1858. The sepoys were a combination of Muslim and Hindu soldiers. Just before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, there were over 200,000 Indians in the army compared to about 40,000 British. The forces were divided into three presidency armies: the Bombay; the Madras; and the Bengal. The Bengal army recruited higher castes, such as “Rajputs and Brahmans”, mostly from the “Avadh(or oudh) and Bihar” region and even restricted the enlistment of lower castes in 1855; in contrast, the Madras and Bombay armies were “more localized, caste-neutral armies”that “did not prefer high-caste men.” The domination of the Bengal high-caste in the army has been blamed in part for the Sepoy mutiny of 1857. It has been suggested that after the annexation of Oudh by the East India Company in 1856, many sepoys were disquieted both from losing their perquisites, as landed gentry, in the Oudh courts and from the anticipation of any increased land-revenue payments that the annexation might augur. Others have stressed that by 1857, some Indian soldiers, misreading the presence of missionaries as a sign of official intent, were persuaded that the East India Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. The final spark was provided by the controversy over the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. To load the new rifle, the sepoys had to bite the cartridge open. It was believed that the paper cartridges that were standard issue with the rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as anathema to Hindus.

One could say that Fraser had attempted to present the conflict from both views. One could say that he gave it his best shot. But it would have been impossible in the end. Especially since the novel was written from Flashman’s point of view. But I must give Fraser some credit for allowing Flashman to witness the emotions expressed by those Indians that had fought against the British . . . especially the beautiful and very memorable Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi.

The story began with Flashman receiving a summons from Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to join him at the Royal Family’s Scottish estate, Balmoral, in the early fall of 1856. Much to Flashman’s horror, he discovered that Palmerston wants him to journey to India and investigate a secret message that is being transmitted to many native villagers, sepoys (Indian soldiers under British command) and rulers alike, via a small stack of chapattis (Indian bread). Even worse, Flashman endured an unpleasant reunion with his former Crimean War foe, Count Ignatieff. The reunion resulted in a terrifying episode in the Highlands during a deer stalking party. And Ignatieff learned about Flashman’s India mission, thanks to the latter’s beautiful, but scatterbrained wife, Elspeth. Once Flashman arrived in India, he commenced upon his mission to investigate the mysterious chapattis exchange and guarantee the loyalty of Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi. But fate ended up dealing Flash Harry a cruel blow when a group of Thugee assassins attempted to kill him, following a clandestine tryst with the beautiful Rani. Suspecting mischief from Ignatieff (who has also arrived in India), Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim Khan, urged him to hide from Ignatieff’s plots by impersonating a sepoy at the British cantonment (fort) in Meerut. Unfortunately, Flashman’s choice of location proved to be disasterous, for the cowardly officer found himself at the very place where the sepoy uprising began.

If I had to choose my favorite Flashman novel of all time, it would not be ”GREAT GAME”. Quality has nothing to do with my choice. I just happen to be a fanatic about the American Old West, which is why ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” remains my favorite. However, if I had to choose the six Flashman novels I consider supreme over the others, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”would be one of them. It is, without a doubt, one of Fraser’s finest works and one of the best historical novels I have ever read. There were times I found myself wondering about Fraser’s talent as a journalist. I believe that he certainly put it to good use in re-capturing not only London and the Scottish Highlands in the mid-19th century, but also British India.

The novel’s gem or centerpiece started with Flashman’s arrival in Jhansi and ended with his escape from the siege at Cawnpore. Mind you, I was impressed by other passages in the novel:

*Flashman’s frightening encounter with Ignatieff and a Russian assassin at Balmoral

*Flashman’s lustful last moments with his wife Elspeth and her feather fan

* Flashman and an Irish wannabe hero named Thomas Henry Kavanaugh’s hilarious journey through the streets of war torn Lucknow in an attempt to contact British military forces

*Flashman’s terrifying moments with the British artillery at Gwalior

Earlier, I had mentioned how Fraser gave readers glimpses of the 1857-58 uprising not only from the viewpoints of Flashman, other Britons and loyal Indians, but also from those who had fought against the British. This was very apparent in the passages that featured Flashman’s impersonation as a sepoy in Meerut. Fraser gave readers a solid peek into the sepoys’ discontent and suspicions toward British regard for their beliefs – feelings that eventually to their uprising. In the following passage, Fraser described the Meerut sepoys’ refusal to drill with the new Enfield rifles with its infamous greased cartridges:

It wasn’t the most tactful thing to say, to that particular sepoy; I thought Sardul would go into a frenzy, the way he wept – but he wouldn’t touch the cartridges. So it went, along the line; when the end had been reached only four other men out of ninety had accepted the loads – four and that stalwart pillar of loyalty, Flashy Makarram Khan (he knew his duty, and which side his bread was buttered).

So there it was. Carmichael-Smith could hardly talk for sheer fury, but he cussed us something primitive, promising dire retribution, and then dismissed the parade. They went in silence – some stony-faced, others troubled, a number (like old Sardul) weeping openly, but mostly just sullen. For those of us who had taken the cartridges, by the way, there were no reproaches from the others – proper lot of long-suffering holy little Tom Browns they were.”

After surviving the outbreak of the uprising in Meerut, Flashman return to Jhansi for safety and discovered that another sepoy rebellion had occurred at its British cantonment. Flashman, Ilderim and a few other Ghazi (Afghan) soldiers decided to head for the British cantonment at Cawnpore. Once more, Flashy’s bad luck reared its ugly head when he and his companions discovered that the sepoys had revolted there, as well. However, the British commander at Cawnpore – General Hugh Wheeler – had foreseen a possible revolt by the sepoys and made plans to create a makeshift garrison for the British community (military and civilian), Eurasians and loyal Indians. Fraser painted a detailed description of Wheeler’s command at Cawnpore. But his description of the sepoys’ attack on June 23, 1857 really blew my mind:

”They were re-forming, a bare hundred yards off; the ground between was littered with dead and dying beasts and men. I had barely time to gulp a mouthful of warm, muddy water and seize my musket before they were howling in at us once more, and this time there were pandy infantrymen racing behind them.

‘One more volley!’ bawls Wheeler. ‘Hold your fire, there! Aim for the horses! No surrender! Ready, present – fire!’

The whole wall blasted fire, and the charge shook and wavered before it came rushing on again; half a dozen of them were rearing and plunging up to the entrenchment, the sabres were swinging about our heads, and I was rolling away to avoid the smashing hooves of a rider coming in almost on top of me. I scrambled to my feet, and there was a red-coated black devil leaping at me from the parapet; I smashed at him with my musket butt and sent him flying, and then another one was at me with his sabre, lunging. I shrieked as it flew past my head, and then we had closed, and I was clawing at his face, bearing him down by sheer weight. His sabre fell, and I plunged for it; another pandy was rushing past me, musket and bayonet extended, but I got my hand on the fallen hilt, slashing blindly; I felt a sickening shock on my head, and fell, a dead weight landed on top of me, and the next thing I knew I was on my hands and knees, with the earth swimming round me, and Wheeler was bawling.”

Ironically, one of my favorite passages featured some of the rebelling sepoys’ reaction to encountering their former commanders, following General Wheeler’s decision to surrender to their new leader, the Nana Sahib. I personally feel that it featured some of Fraser’s best writing:

”Four mutineers were hurrying up and down the untidy convoy, calling out and searching, until they spotted Vibart and his family – and then they ran hallooing and calling ‘Colonel sahib! Mem-sahib!’, and seized on the family’s baggage, and one of them, beaming and chuckling, lifted Vibart’s little lad on to his shoulders, piggyback, while the others shouted and shoved and made room for Mrs. Vibart in a wagon. Vibart was dumbfounded, and two of the mutineers were weeping as they took his hand and carried his gear – I saw another one at it, too, an old grizzled havildar of the 56th, standing on the entrenchment gazing down into the ruin of the barracks with tears running down his white beard; he was shaking his head in grief, and then he would look no more, but turned about and stared across the maidan, still crying.” 

Despite the grim tone of the novel’s subject, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” featured some hilarious moments. I had already pointed out a hilarious scene that involved Flashman traveling through the streets of Lucknow with an Irish hero wannabe named Kavanaugh. Two of them included quotes made by Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim. While they were still in Jhansi, the Ghazi not only commented upon Flashy’s successful womanizing, but also mocked the British officer’s stubborn belief in Lakshambai’s alleged affection for him:

”Ilderim glanced at me witheringly, and bit his nail in scorn.

‘Bloody Lance,’ says he, ‘ye may be the bravest rider in the British Army, and God knows thou art no fool – but with women thou art a witless infant. Thou hast coupled this Hindoo slut, hast thou not?’

‘Damn your impudence –‘

‘I thought as much. Tell me, blood-brother, how many women hast thou covered, in thy time?’ And he winked at his mates.

‘What the devil d’you mean?’ I demanded.

‘How many? Come, as a favour to thy old friend.’

‘Eh? What’s it to you dammit? Oh, well, let’s see . . . there’s the wife, and . . . er . . . and, ah-‘

‘Aye – ye have fornicated more times than I have passed water,’ says this elegant fellow. ‘And just because they let thee have thy way, didst thou trust them therefore? Because they were beautiful or lecherous – wert thou fool enough to think it made them honest? Like enough. This Rani has beglamoured the – well then, go thou up and knock on her palace gate tonight, and cry “Beloved, let me in.” I shall stand under the wall to catch the pieces.’”

But one of the funniest moments focused upon Flashman acting as a native escort for a red-haired British widow named Mrs. Leslie at Meerut, out for an afternoon ride. Apparently, the attractive lady had developed a lust for our hero, not realizing that he was a British officer impersonating an Afghan-born sepoy:

”’You Pathans are not truly . . . Indian, are you? I mean . . . in some ways you look . . . well, almost . . . white.’

‘We are not Indian at all, mem-sahib,’ says I. ‘We are descended from the people of Ibrahim, Ishak and Yakub, who were led from the Khedive’s country by one Moses.’

‘You mean – you’re Jewish?’ says she. ‘Oh.’ She rode in silence for a while. ‘I see. How strange.’ She thought some more. ‘I . . . I have Jewish acquaintances . . . in England. Most respectable people. And quite white, of course.’

Well, the Pathans believe it, and it made her (Mrs. Leslie) happy, so I hurried the matter along by suggesting next day that I show her the ruins at Aligaut, about six miles from the city; it’s a deserted temple, very overgrown, but what I hadn’t told her was that the inside walls were covered with most artistically-carved friezes depiciting all the Hindoo methods of fornicating – you known the kind of thing: effeminate-looking lads performing incredible couplings with fat-titted females. She took one look and gasped; I stood behind with the horses and waited. I saw her eyes travel round from one impossible carving to the next, while she gulped and went crimson and pale by turns, not knowing whether to scream or giggle, so I stepped up behind her and said quietly that the forty-fifth position was much admired by the discriminating. She was shivering, with her back to me, and then she turned, and I saw that her eyes were wild and her lips trembling, so I gave my swarthy ravisher’s growl, swept her up in my arms, and then down on to the mossy floor. She gave a little frightened moan, opened her eyes wide, and whispered:

‘You’re sure you’re Jewish . . . not . . . not Indian?’

Han,mem-sahib,’ says I, thrusting away respectfully, and she gave a contented little squeal and grappled me like a wrestler.”

The novel also featured more memorable incidents and moments – including Flashman’s reunion with his old classmate and fellow prisoner-of-war, Harry “Scud” East that proved to be at first, caustic, and later, bittersweet; and his terrifying experience at being mistaken for a rebellious sepoy, following General Hugh Rose’s victory at Gwalior. But . . . there were a few flies in the ointment, so to speak. One, the last third of the novel seemed like an aftermath following Flashman’s experiences at Jhansi, Meerut and Cawnpore. He spent most of that period as an intelligence staff officer or as a prisoner of the Rani of Jhansi.

Speaking of the Rani, she and Flashy had a curious conversation about the British Empire, and also the differences between British and Indian customs that left me baffled. I found myself wondering why Harry Flashman, of all people, would go to such lengths to defend the Empire and the British way of life to an Indian queen. Mind you, I am certain that he had nothing against it, being both patriotic and racist. But why did it mattered so much to him that Lakshambai agree with his opinion on the joys of the British rule? One could say that he was simply doing his job. Yet, there was something about Flashman’s responses that made him look like an over earnest schoolboy. Especially when one considers that despite his patriotism, the Empire has kept Flashy from England and safety more times that he care to remember. The entire conversation . . . or should I say Flashman’s responses to the Rani’s objections against the Empire rang false and out of character for me.

Another problem I had with ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” turned out to be the presence of Count Nicholas Ignatieff in the story. Granted, he seemed just as ruthless as he had been in ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”. But aside from his attempt to get Flashman killed at Balmoral, his presence in the story seemed rather weak. Almost unnecessary. Ignatieff did have an opportunity to torture Flashman in the dungeon beneath the Jhansi palace. But Lakshambai cut short the torture session, made Flashman her prisoner and Ignatieff permanently disappeared from the story.

Despite these minor flaws, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” is still a magnificent historical novel. Fraser filled his story with enough different elements – drama, action, comedy, terror, tragedy and suspense – that allowed it to become one of the most well written novels I have ever read. Through Flashman’s eyes, the author left me laughing, breathless and surprisingly enough, in tears. In fact, I find it surprising that the novel never won any literary awards. A shame, really. For I believe that it certainly deserved a great deal of them.

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

Serving as the fourth entry in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, this 1973 novel continued the story of Harry Flashman, a character previously from the 1857 novel, “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” and now a British Army officer in Fraser’s novels. This particular novel, “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, recalled Flashman’s experiences during the Crimean War (1854-1856) and Imperial Russia’s expansion into Central Asia. 

One could say that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” could almost serve as a prequel to Fraser’s 1975 novel about the Sepoy Rebellion, “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Almost. But it seemed quite obvious to me that the latter is a sequel to the 1973 novel. At least two supporting characters from this novel reappeared in “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And the theme of Imperial Russia’s attempts to wrestle control of India from Great Britain in the 1975 novel, began in this novel.

The 1973 novel began with Harry Flashman enjoying the London social scene with his beautiful wife, Elspeth. With Great Britain on the brink of war against Russia on Turkey’s behalf, the cowardly Flashman believed that the only way to avoid combat was to have his Uncle Bindley secure him a post with the Board of Ordinance – the British Army’s armory. However, Flashman’s luck failed to hold (not surprisingly) and his meeting with the young German prince, William of Celle (a relation of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) led him to become a staff galloper for Lord Raglan, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief. The new position drew Harry against his will into the chaos of the Crimean War and in becoming a participant of one of history’s most infamous cavalry engagements – the Charge of the Light Brigade. This famous military action also led him to becoming a prisoner-of-war at the estate of a Cossack nobleman named Count Pencherjevsky

At Count Pencherjevsky’s estate, Starkosk, Flashman has a reunion with a former Rugby schoolmate, Harry “Scud” East. After the two English prisoners learned of Russia’s plans to invade India and kick the British out, they decided to make their escape following a serf uprising at Starkosk. Unfortunately for Flashman, a sleigh accident led to his recapture by the Russians and a political officer named Count Nicholas Ignitieff. Flashy’s incarceration at Fort Raim led him to an acquaintance with two famous Muslim freedom fighters from the state of Kokodad, Yakub Beg and Issat Kutebar. Luck finally caught up with Flashman, when he and his two new acquaintances are rescued by Yakub Beg’s mistress, Ko Dali’s daughter, and a band of Kokodans. Following the rescue, Harry participated in one last action against the Russians against his will . . . so to speak.

I must admit that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” turned out to be a well-structured and well-written novel. Unless I am mistaken, the novel was written into three parts – the London prelude, Flashman’s Crimean War experiences that included his time as a prisoner-of-war at the Starkosk estate, and finally his incarceration at Fort Raim and experiences with the Kokadans. Fraser began the novel on a strong note and finished it in a similar manner. My only sole complaint centered on Flashman’s journey to Starkosk and his time at the estate. In short, it seemed to me that the sequence threatened to bog down the pace. I suspect that Fraser’s in-depth look into Imperial Russian serfdom during this sequence is responsible. As much as I found it interesting, I also wondered if Fraser got caught up in his subject, which would seem ironic considering his failure to explore American slavery in the 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. As much as I had enjoyed Flashman’s time spent with Count Pencherjevsky and his family on the Starkosk estate, no one felt more relieved than me when he and “Scud” East finally escaped, thanks to a serf uprising. I had become rather weary of Flashman’s period as a prisoner-of-war.

Despite some of my problems with the novel, I cannot deny that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” is a well-written novel. Fraser did an excellent job in recapturing London during the early and mid 1850s and Great Britain’s pro-war mood on the cusp of the Crimean War. He also expertly drew readers into the world of the British Army during the first months of the war. His description of the Army caps and hospitals at Alma just before the Battle of Balaclava literally had me cringing in my seat a bit:

“So the siege was laid, the French and ourselves sitting down on the muddy, rain-sodden gullied plateau before Sevastopol, the dismalest place on earth, with no proper quarters but a few poor huts and tents, and everything to be carted up from Balaclava on the coast eight miles away. Soon the camp, and the road to it, was a stinking quagmire; everyone looked and felt filthy, the rations were poor, the work of preparing the siege was cruel hard (for the men, anyway), and all the bounce there had been in the army after Alma evaporated in the dank, feverish rain by day and the biting cold by night. Soon half of us were lousy, as some wags said, who’d holiday at Brighton if he could come to sunny Sevastopol instead?”

Another memorable passage featured Flashman’s participation in the Light Brigade Charge. Fraser did a superb job in describing not only the Battle of Balaclava, but particularly the Light Brigade Charge. I found his description of the famous military charge filled with heady action, chaos and terror – especially from Flashman’s point-of-view:

“I had only a moment to look back – my mare was galloping like a thing demented, as I steadied, there was Cardigan, waving his sabre and standing in his stirrups; the guns were only a hundred yards away, almost hiddenin a great billowing bank of smoke, a bank which kept glaring red as though some Lucifer were opening furnace doors deep inside it. There was no turning, no holding back, and even in that deafening thunder I could hear the sudden chorus of yells behind me as the torn remnant of the Light Brigade gathered itself for the final mad charge into the battery. I dug my heels, yelling nonsense and brandishing my sabre, shot into the smoke with one final rip from my bowels and a prayer that my gallant little mare wouldn’t career headlong into a gun-muzzle, staggered at the fearful concussion of a gun exploding within a yard of me – and then we were through, into the open space behind the guns, leaping the limbers and ammunition boxes with the Russians scattering to let us through, and Cardigan a bare two yards away, reining his beast back almost on its haunches.”

However, one of my favorite chapters in the novel featured Flashman and the Kokordans’ attempts to destroy the Russian gunboats filled with weapons to be used against the Kokordans and the invasion of India. Before this battle took place, Ko Dali’s daughter drugged the cowardly officer with hashish (bhang) in order to force him to overcome his fear for the operation. The scene of the cowardly Flashy acting like George Armstrong Custer on crack struck me as one of the funniest passages in the entire series:

“God, what a chaos it was! I was galloping like a dervish at Kutebar’s heels, roaring ‘Hark forrard! Ha-ha, you bloody foreigners, Flashy’s here!’, careering through the narrow spaces between the sheds, with the muskets banging off to our left, startled sleepers crying out, and everyone yelling like be-damned. As we burst headlong onto the last stretch of open beach, and swerved past the landward end of the pier, some stout Russian was bawling and letting fly with a pistol; I left off singing ‘Rule, Britannia’ to take a shot at him, but missed, and there ahead someone was waving a torch and calling, and suddenly there were dark figures all around us, clutching at our bridles, almost pulling us from the saddles towards a big go-down on the north side of the pier.”

George MacDonald Fraser did take historical liberties with one particular character – the novel’s main villain, Count Nicholas Ignatieff. The author described the Russian character in the following manner:

“And as our eyes met through the cigarette smoke I thought, hollo, this is another of those momentous encounters. You didn’t have to look at this chap twice to remember him forever. It was the eyes, as it so often is – I thought in that moment of Bismarck, and Charity Spring, and Akbar Khan; it had been the eyes with them, too. But this fellow’s were different from anything yet: one was blue, but the other had a divided iris, half-blue, half-brown, and the oddly fascinating effect of this was that you didn’t know where to look, but kept shifting from one to the other.

For the rest, he had a gingerish, curling hair and square, masterful face that was no way impaired by a badly-broken nose. He looked tough, and immensely self-assured; it was in his glance, in the abrupt way he moved, in the slant of the long cigarette between his fingers, in the rakish tilt of his peaked cap, in the immaculate white tunic of the Imperial Guards. He was the kind who knew exactly what was what, where everything was, and precisely who was who – especially himself. He was probably a devil with women, admired by his superiors, hated by his rivals, and abjectly feared by his subordinates. One word summed him up: bastard.”

The above passage described Flashman’s opinion of Ignatieff during their first meeting on the road to Starkosk. They met for the second time, when Flashman and “Scud” East overheard Ignatieff, Czar Nicholas I and other Russian officials discuss plans to invade India during a secret meeting at Starkosk. And their third and final encounter happened after Flashman was recaptured, following his escape from Starkosk and attempt to reach the British lines on the Crimean peninsula. It was Ignatieff who tossed Flashman into the prison at Fort Raim. From what I have read, the real Ignatieff had never been quite the villain as portrayed in “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”. Fraser even admitted that he taken liberties with the character in order to provide the novel with a main villain. Mind you, I believe he could have done that a lot easier with a fictional character. Why he had decided to take a historical figure and change his character in order to make him an effective villain is beyond me.

After reading “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, it is easy to see why it remains very popular with many fans of Fraser’s novels. It is a well written comic-adventure tale filled with interesting characters – fictional and historical. The novel also featured two very unique passages, namely the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade and the usually cowardly Flashman behaving in a brave and aggressive man during a major battle. “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” also happened to be one of those rare Flashman novels that began and ended on a strong note. Not only does it remain popular with many Flashman fans, I personally consider it to be one of Fraser’s better works.

“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) Book Review

Below is my review of “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”, author George MacDonald Fraser’s seventh novel in theFlashman Papers series: 

“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) Book Review

Set during the Old West of 1849-50 and the mid 1870s, “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” has the distinction of being the first novel in the Flashman Papers series to begin outside of Great Britain. It will not be the last, but it certainly was the first. Penned by George MacDonald Fraser and published in 1982, the novel also happens to be my favorite in the series.

Since this particular novel happened to be an immediate follow-up to Fraser’s third novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” began where the 1971 novel had ended – on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana in the early spring of 1849. British Army officer Harry Flashman had just testified at Captain John Charity Spring’s trial, enabling the psychotic sea captain to avoid being convicted for slave trading in U.S. waters. In return, Spring agreed to provide Flashman passage back to England. Unfortunately for both men, Fatehad a different path in mind when they encountered one of Flashman’s old nemesis at a local saloon – a slave trader/planter named Peter Omohundro, whom young Flashy had encountered on a northbound Mississippi River steamboat several months ago. After Spring killed the aggressively suspicious Omohundro during a brutal saloon fight, he and Flashman ended up seeking refuge with another one of Flashy’s past acquaintances from “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” – the red-haired Cockney-born madam named Susie Wilnick. Flashman’s reunion with Susie proved to be just as sensuous as their last encounter. After a few bouts of sex, Susie asked him to marry. Lacking in any morals, yet providing a great deal of practicality, Flashman accepted her proposal. And being a steel-minded businesswoman, Susie dealt with the insane Captain Spring in the following manner, during supper:

“But by and by he (Spring) said less and less, and that none too clearly; I was just beginning to wonder if the drink had got to him for once when he suddenly gave a great sigh, and a staring yawn, caught at his chair arms as though to rise, and then fell face foremost into the blancmange.

Susie glanced at me, lifting a warning finger. Then she got up, pulled his face out of the mess, and pushed up one eyelid. He was slumped like a sawdust doll, his face purple.

“That’s all right,” says she. “Brutus!” And before my astonished eyes the butler went out, and presently in came two likely big coves in reefer jackets. At a nod from Susie, they hefted Spring out of his chair, and without a word bore him from the room. Susie sauntered back to her place, took a sip of wine, and smiled at my amazement.

“Well,” says she, “we wouldn’t ‘ave wanted ‘im along on our ‘oneymoon, would we?””

With Spring gone, Flashman no longer has a speedy means to reach England. Another chance to leave the Mississippi Valley and prosecution for slave stealing appeared when Susie announced her decision to close down her New Orleans whorehouse and take her retinue of slaves – prostitutes and servants – to San Francisco in California. The departure could not have come sooner for Flashman, as he had discovered during a stopover in St. Louis, Missouri:

“It wasn’t only the plague that worried me, either; St. Louis was the town where a few weeks earlier they’d been posting rewards of a hundred dollars for my apprehension, describing me to a T and warning the citizenry that I had Genteel Manners and spoke with a Foreign Accent, damn their impudence.”

I have been a fan of the Flashman novels for many years. But there are a few of them I would describe as truly epic. In my opinion, one of those epic novels happened to be “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. Fraser did a superb job in capturing the breath and scope of the American West in both the late 1840s and mid 1870s. His description of Flashman’s wagon train journey from Independence to Santa Fe that included a hair-raising interlude at Bent’s Fort was a masterpiece. I can also say the same for the sequence that featured Flashman’s harrowing escape from the Mimbreno Apaches across the New Mexico desert, featured in the last chapters of Part One.

Fraser wrote this particular saga in two parts. Part One, entitled “The Forty-Niner”, covered Flashman’s experiences in the United States and the Far West between 1849 and 1850. In this section, Flashman’s “marriage” to Susie Wilnick (he already had his wife Elspeth waiting for him back home in England) led to him becoming a wagon train emigrant and de facto captain during the period known as the California Gold Rush; the lover of Cleonie, one of Susie’s slave whores; manger of Susie’s Santa Fe whorehouse; a scalp hunter under the leadership of one John Joel Glanton (known to Flashman as “Gallantin”) in New Mexico’s Del Norte Valley; and eventually the son-in-law of the Mimbreno Apache chief, Mangas Colorado; and husband of the latter’s precious daughter, Sonsee-Array aka Takes Away Cloud Woman. After six months with his bride and her Apache relatives, which included the famous Geronimo, Flashman finally makes his escape and head northeast. While being chased by Apache warriors through the grueling Jornada Del Muerto desert, he is rescued by the famous Western tracker and guide, Kit Carson.

Part Two – called “The Seventy-Sixer” – was set between 1875 and 1876. It centered on Flashman and his wife Elspeth’s visit to the United for the Centennial celebration. The journey not only led to a series of reunions with acquaintances from the American Civil War, but also with those Flashman had met during his first visit to the West. Flashman’s reunion with a Sioux leader named Spotted Tail led directly to one with an old lover out for revenge and his minor participation in the Battle of Little Bighorn with Custer and the Seventh Calvary. Flashman’s visit also led to his acquaintance of a young man who managed to – not quite break his heart – but tweak it a bit.

In my review of “FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, I had complained of Fraser’s uneven portrayal of antebellum United States. I have no such complaints for this novel. Fraser did a much superior job in describing the antebellum United States and especially the West. In fact, I cannot recall finding any evidence of uneven pacing or historical inaccuracies, as I had done in the 1971 novel. What I really enjoyed about this novel was Fraser’s feel for both the novel’s period and landscape. One of his best passages featured his description of Kanzas Landing, Independence, and Westport (now Kansas City) in Missouri during the spring of 1849:

“They tell me that Kansas City nowadays covers the whole section, but in those days the landing and Westport and Independence were separated by woodland and meadow. And I wonder if today’s city contains more people than were crowded along the ten miles from Independence to the river when I first saw it in ’49: there were thousands of them, in tents and lean-tos and houses and log shacks and under the trees and in the few taverns and lodging-places; they were in the stables and sheds and shops and storehouses, a great swarming hive of humanity of every kind you can imagine – well, I remember the Singapore river in the earlies, and it was nothing to Westport-Independence. The whole stretch was jammed with wagons and carts and carriages, churning the spaces between the buildings into a sea of mud after the recent rain, and through it went the mules and oxen and horses, with the steam rising from them and the stench of hides and dung and smoke filling the air – but even that was nothing to the noise.

Every other building seemed to be a forge or a stable or a warehouse, a-clang with hundreds of hammers and the rasp of saws and the crack of axes and the creak of wheels and the thump and scrape of boxes and bales being loaded or unloaded; teamsters snapped their whips with a “Way-hay, whoa!”, foremen bellowed, children shrilled, the voices of thousands of men and women blended with it all in a great eager busy din that echoed among the buildings and floated off to be lost in the surrounding forest.”

Flashman’s first meeting Sonsee-Array – Mangas Colorado’s youngest daughter – struck an interesting note with me. It made me realize how much Flashman’s character had matured in the eight to nine years since his adventures in Afghanistan. In the first novel, 1969’s “FLASHMAN”, the 19 year-old British officer had an encounter with an Afghan dancer named Narameen that led to her being raped by him. Narameen also happened to be the lover of one of his enemies. Eight years later, while in the company of John Joel Glanton and his scalphunters, Flashman met the Apache chief’s daughter. First, he managed to save her from being raped by an Irishman he disliked named Grattan Nugent-Hare. When offered to “take her” himself, Flashman handled the situation with a lot more delicacy than he did with Narameen:

“You must understand the effect of this, of Flashy imposing his winning ways on that fortunate native wench. There she was, a helpless prisoner in the hands of the most abominable ruffians in North America, who had butchered her menfold before her eyes and were about to subject her to repeated rape, possible torture, and certain death. Up jumps this strapping chap with splendid whiskers, who not only kills out of hand the cad who is molesting her, but thereafter treats her kindly, pets her patiently, and absolutely asks permission to squeeze her boobies. She is astonished, nay gratified, and, since she’s a randy little minx at bottom, ready to succumb with pleasure. All thanks to style, as inculcated by Dr. Arnold, though I wouldn’t expect him to claim credit for it.

And mark the sequel. When other of her tribesmen, having got wind of the massacre, attack the scalp-hunters by night, she is alarmed for her protector. If he joins in the scrap – the last thing I’d have done, but she wasn’t to know that – harm may come to him, so being a lass of spirit she ensures his neutrality by clouting him behind the ear with a rock. Then, when her tribesmen have wiped out or captured most of the marauders (Gallantin and a few others alone escaped) she is at pains to preserve her savior from the general vengeance. Had he been a man without style, she’d have been the first to set about him with a red-hot knife.”

I found it ironic that his actions in “FLASHMAN” nearly cost Flashman his life on two separate occasions. Yet, in“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”, his actions ended up saving him and leading him to becoming husband to another, namely Sonsee-Array and son-in-law to Mangas Colorado. One of the novel’s funniest passages featured Flashman’s conversation with the Apache chief. I would include the conversation if I could, but it is rather long and would be better appreciated in its full glory. But Flashman had this to say about him:

“Sonsee-array was beside me, her hand slipping into mine, the sullen faces round us were indifferent rather than hostile, the Yawner (Geronimo) shrugged – and Mangas Colorado gave us a final curt nod and stalked away. Just the same, I couldn’t help thinking that old Morrison hadn’t been such a bad father-in-law.”

Before one starts thinking that Harry Flashman had learned to treat women with more respect by the age of 27, consider his earlier behavior toward Cleonie – one of Susie Wilnick’s mulatto prostitutes. The two had begun an affair during the wagon train journey along the Santa Fe Trail and continued it in Santa Fe. Cleonie, who had the bad luck (and stupidity) to fall in love with Flashy; proposed that they abandon Susie and head for El Paso, Texas. He agreed. Being the complete black-hearted villain, Flashman sold Cleonie to a priest acting as an agent for a Navaho chieftain on the night of their departure for two thousand dollars:

“I picked up my gear from the summer-house when he’d gone, and went quickly down through the crowded Plaza to the livery stable, where I slung my few traps over the mule, rode out on the Albuquerque trail. I won’t say I didn’t regret Cleonie’s absence – clever lass, fine mount, charming conversationalist, but too saucy by half, and she’d never have earned us two thousand dollars between Santa Fe and El Paso, not in a month of Sundays.”

It took Cleonie nearly twenty-seven years to seek revenge for his betrayal in Part Two of the novel.

The novel’s second half featured some interesting aspects in the story. One of the novel’s funnier moments dealt with Flashman’s reunions with Army officers he had met during the American Civil War – including some humorous descriptions of William Sherman and Philip Sheridan:

“So now you see Flashy in his splendid prime at fifty-three, distinguished foreign visitor, old comrade and respected military man, with just a touch of grey in the whiskers but no belly to speak of, straight as a lance and a picture of cavalier gallantry as I stoop to salute the blushing cheek of the new Mrs. Sheridan at the wedding reception in her father’s garden. Little Phil, grinning all over and still looking as though he’d fallen in the river and let his uniform dry on him, led me off to talk to Sherman, whom I’d known for a competent savage, and the buffoon Pope, whose career had consisted of losing battles and claiming he’d won.”

But nothing quite beat Flashman’s reunion with the infamous George Armstrong Custer. Fraser best described the American Army officer’s over-the-top personality with the Flashmans’ visit to a New York theater with Custer and his family:

“So we five dined frequently, and visited the theater, of which Custer was a great patron; he was a friend of Barrett the actor, who was butchering Shakespeare at Booth’s, and would sit with his eyes glued to the stage muttering “Friends, Romans, countrymen” under his breath.

That should have made me leery; I’m all for a decent play myself, but when you see someone transported from reality by them, watch out. I shan’t easily forget the night we saw some sentimental abomination about a soldier going off to the wars; when the moment came when his wife buckled on his sword for him, I heard sniffing and supposed it was Libby or Elspeth piping her eye. Then the sniff became a baritone groan, and when I looked, so help me it was Custer himself, with his hand to his brow, bedewing his britches with manly tears.”

In fact, during the Flashmans’ first dinner with the Custers, the emotional George Armstrong got on Flashy’s nerves with his constant complaints about his superiors in Washington and warbling about the Englishman’s own military service. Flashman responded by having a little sport with Custer’s ego in this hilarious scene at a New York restaurant:

“”Luck of the service,” says I, and because I was bored with his croaking I added: “Anyway, I’ve never been a general, and I’ve only one American Medal of Honor, you know.”

This was Flashy at his most artistic, you’ll agree, when I tell you that I knew perfectly well that Custer had no Medal of Honour, but his brother Tom had two. I guessed nothing would gall him more than having to correct my apparent mistake, which he did, stiffly, while Tom studied the cutlery and I was all apologies, feigning embarrassment.”

Although Part Two seemed to lack the epic scope of Part One, it did feature some memorable passages. In Part One, Flashman met several Sioux warriors on the journey west, through trail guide Dick Wootton. One of them was a future leader named Spotted Tail. Part Two featured a series of events that began with Flashman’s reunion with the Sioux leader Spotted Tail in Chicago, Illinois and one of his braves, Standing Bear. Thanks to that particular reunion, our fearful hero attracted the attention of a businesswoman named Mrs. Arthur B. Candy. She wanted to use Flashman’s fame in a land scheme in the Dakota Territories and invited to join her in an excursion to the area. Flashman and Mrs. Candy’s journey to the Dakota Territory was not very interesting, despite accompanying George Custer and the Seventh Calvary. But it did feature a colorful description of cavalry troopers boarding a Powder River steamboat in order to continue their journey to the Greasy Grass country:

“It was about ten days out of Bismarck that we came to the Powder mouth, where a great military camp was taking shape. With the arrival of Terry’s advance guard, and Gibbon only a few days’ march away, there was tremendous work and bustle; the Far West was back and forth ferrying troops and stores and equipment; her steerage was a bedlam of men and gear, while our deck was invaded by all manner of staff-wallopers in search of comfort; Terry held his meetings in the saloon; messengers went galloping pell-mell along the banks; a forest of tents and lean-tos sprang up in the meadows; the woods rang and hummed with the noise of men and horses, rumours of Indian movement far to the south were discussed and as quickly discounted; no one knew what the blazes was happening – indeed, it was like the beginning of any campaign I’d ever seen.”

More importantly, Flashman discovered that he had become a target of revenge. Mrs. Candy turned out to be none other than Cleonie, the former lover he had sold to the Navaho. Through her, he ended up becoming a captive of the Sioux on the eve of the Little Bighorn Battle at Greasy Grass. How Fraser’s “intrepid” hero ended up escaping the Sioux and participating in the infamous battle featured an interesting little scene involving him and a real life Sioux woman named Walking Blanket Woman:

“I looked at her now, giving her the full benefit, the sweet little soul – and like all the rest, she succumbed. As I say, it’s true, and here I am, and I can’t explain it – perhaps it’s the whiskers, or the six feet two and broad shoulders, or just my style. But she looked at me, and her lids lowered, and she glanced across the river where the troopers were riding down the coulee, and then back at me – this girl whose brother had been killed by my people only a few days back. I can’t describe the look in her eyes – frowning, reluctant hesitant, almost resigned; she couldn’t help herself, you see, the dear child. Then she sighed, lifted the knife – and cut the thongs securing my hands to the yoke.

“Go on, then,” says she. “You poor old man.”

Well, I couldn’t reply with my mouth full of gag, and by the time I’d torn it out she had gone, running off to the right with her hatchet and knife, God bless her.”

Although Flashman managed to survive the battle, he ended up as a prisoner of one Frank Grouard, who was known to the Sioux as Standing Bear. According to Fraser’s novel, Grouard turned out to be Harry and Cleonie’s son, who has spent most of his years being raised by the Navaho and later, the Sioux. What Fraser did was take the historical figure of Frank Grouard – the son of a Tahitian woman and an American missionary – and incorporated him into Flashy and Cleonie’s illegitimate son. However, Cleonie’s revenge plot fell to pieces, due to her son. Due to his dislike of her (and I do not blame him), Frank decided to spare his black-hearted father. And both father and son not only discovered that they shared similar traits, they also took a shining to each other.“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” featured that rare occasion in which Flashy had ever expressed any kind of emotion or regard for one of his offspring. When Frank decided to reject his offer to be officially recognized as his son, the two parted in one of the most touching scenes written by Fraser:

“”Frank!” I roared.

He checked at the crest and looked back. I felt such a desolation, then, but I couldn’t move after him, or say what I wanted to say, with all the sudden pain and regret for lost years, and what had come of them. I called up to him.

“I’m sorry, son, about it all.”

“Well, I’m not!” he called back, and laughed, and suddenly lifted his arms wide, either side. “Look, Papa!” He laughed again, and then he had ridden over the skyline and was gone.”

Although the novel featured a vast array of historical figures that included Dick Wootton, Spotted Tail John Joel Glanton, Mangas Colorado, Geromino, Kit Carson, Ulysses S. Grant, Frank Grouard, Crazy Horse and most memorably, George Armstrong Custer; Fraser did not fail his readers in providing some interesting fictional characters. Since the novel had picked up where “FLASHY FOR FREEDOM!” left off, Fraser allowed his readers to briefly reacquaint themselves with one of his best creations, the infamous Captain John Charity Springs. Another veteran from “FLASHY FOR FREEDOM!” turned out to be the Cockney-born New Orleans madam, Susie Wilnick, who had a larger role in this novel as Flash Harry’s 3rd or 4th wife (I lost count). I adored Susie. She was a sentimental, sensual and hard-headed businesswoman. She knew Harry for the rogue he truly was, but did not care. Even when she suspected him of sleeping around her stable of whores, she managed to pay him back by sleeping with the head of their teamsters – an Irish-born former Army officer named Grattan Nugent-Hare. Nugent-Hare turned out to be another interesting character created by Fraser. Although soft-spoken and practical, he turned out to be another rogue (who had left Santa Fe with some of Susie’s money) – only he lacked Harry’s sense of style. Flashman’s second bride in the novel turned out to be the Apache princess, Sonsee-Array aka Takes Away Clouds Woman – Mangas Colorado fictional daughter. She was an interesting, yet haughty and demanding thing who fully appreciated Harry’s sexual prowess. The real Mrs. Harry Flashman (namely Elspeth) had a major role in the novel’s second half. And she was just as charming, sexy and simple-minded as ever – even in her early fifties. There are times when I suspect that Elspeth might not be as stupid as she appears to be. I really enjoyed reading Harry’s suspicions that she may have had a tumble in the grass with Spotted Tail during a conference between the U.S. government and the Sioux and Cheyenne nations.

One last fictional character that played a major role in “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” was Cleonie Grouard, one of Susie’s prostitute slaves. She first caught Flashman’s attention during the wagon journey from Independence to Santa Fe. Once their affair had caught hold, Flashman ignored Susie’s other whores and focused his attention upon her, impressed by her style and looks. It did not take Cleonie very long to put down Flashy’s one time tumble with another slave named Aphrodite:

“”We all know – that is, if Aphrodite is to be believed.” She gave me an inquiring look, still with that tiny smile. “I, myself, would have thought she was rather . . . black . . . and heavy, for Master’s taste. But some men prefer it, I know.” She gave a little shrug. “Others . . .” She left it there, waiting.”

While their affair continued in Santa Fe, Cleonie also exposed Flashman’s lack of any real love for Susie:

“You do not love Miz Susie. And soon you will be leaving her, will you not?”

I found it interesting that Cleonie was shrewd and clever enough to spot Flashman’s true feelings regarding the other prostitutes he had slept with and Susie . . . and yet, she failed to sense his lack of any love toward her. Had love on her part truly blinded her? Perhaps. I also suspect that Cleonie’s own ego and pride made it difficult for her to even consider that Flashy felt the same about her, as he did about Susie, Aphrodite or any of the other whores in Susie’s stable. I am not saying that she deserved the fate that Flashman had dished out to her – being sold to the Navahos and enduring five years of captivity. She did not. And Flashman certainly deserved the fright that he had endured from of her vengeance, some 27 years later. But . . . I have never liked Cleonie. Not really. My dislike has nothing to do with some belief that she was a poorly created character. On the contrary. I believe that Fraser did an exceptional job in creating her character. But after reading “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” for the umpteenth time, I cannot help but feel that she was one egotistical bitch.

Do I have any quibbles about “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”? Well . . . yes. Although well written and with a strong finish, the novel’s second half is not as strong or epic as the first half. Flashman’s adventures at Bent’s Fort in the novel’s first half led to the fort’s destruction and his meeting with a group of mountain men:

“I dug in my finger-nails and pulled, and pulled, until I could no more. I rested my face on one side, and above the scrubby grass in my line of sight there were the legs of a pony, and I hardly had time to think, oh, dear Jesus, the Indians . . . when a hand took me by the shoulder and rolled me over, and I was blinking up into a monstrously-bearded face under a fur cap, and I pawed feebly at a fringed buckskin shirt that was slick with wear, and then the beard split into a huge grin of white teeth, and a voice said:

“Waal, ole hoss, what fettle? How your symptoms segashooatin’? Say, ifn thar wuz jest a spoonful o’ gravy to go with ye, I rackon yore baked just ’bout good enough to eat!””

And here is where Fraser nearly grounded the novel to a halt by devoting a page-and-a-half to the mountain men’s dialect, which the author described as “plug-a-plew”. I would give more samples of their dialect, but frankly Fraser had provided too much of it, by allowing the mountain men to reminisce about Bent’s Fort in a conversation that nearly lasted two pages. Honestly, I really could have done without it. Also, was it really necessary to use a historical figure like Frank Grouard as the love child of Flashman and Cleonie – two fictional characters? I realize that Fraser must have found his character fascinating, but . . . he could have easily created another fictional character to serve as their son. I also had a problem with the route Fraser had chosen for Flashman and Susie to take to California. Early in the novel, Susie made it clear that she planned to relocate her establishment to Sacramento, California:

”It sounded reasonable, I said, but a bit wild to establish a place like hers, and she chuckled confidently.

“I’m goin’ ready-made, don’t you fret. I’ve got a place marked down in Sacramento, through an agent, an’ I’m movin’ the whole kit caboodle up the river to West next Monday – furnishin’s, crockery, my cellar an’ silver . . . an’ the livestock, which is the main thing.””

And how did Susie plan to move her establishment from New Orleans to Sacramento?

“Why, up to Westport an’ across by carriage to – where is it? – Santa Fe, an’ then to San Diego.”

All I can ask is . . . why? Why did Fraser have Flashman and Susie attempt that convoluted trail from New Orleans to Sacramento? They could have easily traveled by steamboat from New Orleans to the Red River and later, to Texas. From Texas, they could have traveled to Santa Fe in New Mexico. And from Santa Fe, they could have traveled along the Gila River Trail to San Diego, California. All they had to do was travel up the coast to San Francisco and later, Sacramento. Or . . . . a less convoluted route could have taken them upriver to St. Louis, Missouri. From there, they could have taken another steamboat across Missouri River to Westport. From there, all they had to do was following the Oregon Trail to Fort Hall in present-day Idaho and take the California Trail all the way to Sutter’s Fort. From there, they would have an easy journey from Sutter’s Fort to Sacramento. Instead, Fraser laid out a more convoluted route. And I suspect that he did so in order for Flashman to be captured by the Mimbreno Apaches and spend six months with them.

I could easily consider “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” as my favorite novel in the Flashman Papers series, due to its setting. After all, I have always been a big aficionado of the history of the American West. And I will admit that the novel’s setting is one of the reasons why I have enjoyed it so much. The novel does have its share of small problems. I believe that Fraser got carried away in his description of mountain men following the scene that featured the destruction of Bent’s Fort. If I must be honest, I believe that the author went a bit too far in using a historical figure like Frank Grouard as the son of Flashman and Cleonie – two fictional characters. I thought it was unnecessary. Susie’s planned route from New Orleans to Sacramento, via Santa Fe and San Diego, seemed convoluted. And the second half is not as interesting as the first half (a common flaw in many Flashman novels). But “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” is a delicious and well-written saga filled with fascinating historical figures like Mangas Colorado and George Armstrong Custer; as well as interesting and well-written fictional characters such as Susie Wilnick, Grattan Nugent-Hare and Cleonie Grouard. The novel also offered a well-documented look at the United States – especially the American West – before and after the Civil War. Quite frankly, I consider it to be one of George MacDonald Fraser’s finest works.