Brigadier-general Sir Harry Flashman, VC, KGB, KCIE and other Scrabble combinations. He has been diamond broker, cricketer (first-recorded hat-trick), hotelier, bodyguard, agriculturalist, incessant amorist. He has been everything except a has-been.
Volume 12 of his chronicles (a bonker's dozen?) has him skulking across bits of three continents — to face the troops of an African Queen. Need I tell you she's a voluptuous African Queen?
With a face that's not so much straight as botoxed, MacDonald Fraser narrates Flashman's supposed autobiographical papers of the 1868 Abyssinian War.
One thing leads to another, as it usually does with Flashman. There's blithe racism and mechanical jolly-rogering (his term). Sexual enlightenment to Sir Harry means doing it with the lamp lit. His first conquest is on p8; his second begins on p70; he detours to a third on p82. As he gets more rheumatic, his women get more pneumatic.
What's it all about? Taking half a million pounds sterling to Africa; meeting an adjutant who can cut a sheep in half lengthways with one sabre stroke; joining a technicolour British force to rescue a handful of Britons from a savage prison at the back of beyond. Aye, those were the days.
It requires Flash Harry to disguise himself as a Hindustani horse-dealer, get an arrow in the saddle, solace a widow, kick a dusky beauty over a waterfall, spend a day in chains and a half-hour near a slow fire, and meet the Queen of Wollo Galla as she lunches with her four household lions.
An average month at the office. There's a particularly unpleasant clifftop massacre, where the author runs up against the problem that moral outrage from someone as amoral as Flashman is emphatically unconvincing. There's an absorbing set piece battle, with corpses in columns.
You learn a bit of history on the way, and you see a bit of landscape as well. Flashman seems to philosophise more than usual; maybe it's middle age. The result is that things canter rather than gallop along.
Our anti-hero's full-frontal cowardice remains endearing. So does his contempt for civil servants. The upper-class slang gets tedious and the notes become laboured.
I've enjoyed the character and chronicles of Sir Harry in the past, but I feel that now may be a good time to put the old boy out to stud.
* Harpercollins, $34.99
* David Hill is a Taranaki writer.