Forty-odd years ago George MacDonald Fraser had a stupendous idea: take the character of Harry Flashman from Tom Brown's Schooldays and follow his career from the time of his expulsion from Rugby School for getting "beastly drunk" on gin punch and beer.
Many publishers turned down his first novel, uncomfortable with the fact that while Fraser proposed that his hero would play a central role in many of the great events at the zenith of British imperial power, in the process rising to become Brigadier-General Sir Harry Flashman VC, he would remain a scoundrel, a liar, a coward, a lecher, a toady - and extremely proud of it.
Those timorous publishers were wrong.
Fraser, a Scottish journalist turned author who died this month aged 82, eventually produced 12 Flashman books for a large and devoted international readership and established his anti-hero as one of British popular fiction's classic characters, in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves and James Bond. (P. G. Wodehouse, incidentally, helped put him on the literary map with this glowing endorsement: "If there was a time when I felt that watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman.")
Perhaps, too, some publishers were thrown by Fraser's insistence that he was merely the editor of a vast autobiographical manuscript which had lain undiscovered in a Leicestershire country house for more than half a century. This little jape took in many American reviewers, one of whom described the "find" as the most important discovery "since the Boswell papers".
Some were undoubtedly put off by Flashy's deplorable attitudes and the relish with which he expressed them, for instance, summarising an encounter with an amply proportioned black woman as "rogering this prime piece of dusky blubber".
The series' commercial success certainly flew in the face of the conventional entertainment industry wisdom that, whatever the leading character's foibles, underneath it all he or she must be sympathetic.
Flashman has no redeeming features except self-knowledge.
The authentic Flashman voice can be heard in this response to a schoolmate's expression of sympathy over his expulsion:
"He'd no cause to love me and if I had been him, I'd have been throwing my cap in the air and hurrahing. But he was soft: one of Arnold's sturdy fools, manly little chaps, full of virtue, the kind that schoolmasters love. Yes, he was a fool then and a fool 20 years later when he died in the dust at Cawnpore with a Sepoy's bayonet in his back. Honest Scud East - that was all his gallant goodness did for him."
He gets away with it due to luck, rat cunning, the galvanising effects of bowel-quaking funk, and the myth built around him by a jingoistic media. Many of his comrades and adversaries know or suspect that this hero has feet of clay but once the political establishment and the popular press have taken Flash Harry to their hearts, his reputation is impregnable.
Even when "some scribbling swine" publishes Tom Brown's Schooldays "on every page of which the disgusting Flashy was to be found torturing fags, toadying, whining for mercy - every word of it true", Flashman's reputation for heroism is undimmed.
"Folk simply don't want to know that such a paladin was a rotter and bully in childhood. They put it from their minds, never suspecting that boy and man are one."
It seems we can blame celebrity culture on the Victorians.
Flashman crosses paths with many historical figures - Otto Von Bismarck, the White Rajah James Brooke, Abraham Lincoln, the celebrated courtesan Lola Montez, General George Custer and the monstrous Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar, butcher and nymphomaniac in whose service he performed the dual roles of military adviser and stallion by appointment for six gruelling months.
They are supplemented by Fraser's vivid inventions, characters such as John Charity Spring MA, perhaps the only fellow of Oriel College to have carved out a second career as a slave-runner, and the fearsome Russian intelligence agent Count Ignatieff.
The Flashman Papers amount to a magnificent achievement in popular fiction. They are rattling good reads - beautifully written, meticulously researched, funny, bawdy and exciting. Sadly we'll never find out what Flashman got up to in the American Civil War (naturally he served on both sides) and the Boxer Rebellion, or how he came to be aide-de-camp to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, or won the San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th class.
Let's hope that the publishers don't try to squeeze more money out of Fraser's brilliant creation by letting a hired hand loose on Flashman, as happened with the likes of Phillip Marlowe, the Corleone family and James Bond. (Kingsley Amis was one of several writers who sought, with scant success, to prolong 007's literary life.)
Like their creators, great characters should be allowed to rest in peace.