You are all well aware of how heroes swashbuckle through an adventurous tale of derring do  in which damsels are rescued from distress, dastardly villains are dispatched to the underworld, and wrongs are righted. You’ll be equally aware of the “anti-hero” archetype, the man of muddied moral compass who doesn’t heed the call of justice but ends up more or else achieving the same results as the hero, grudgingly.
What hero and anti-hero have in common is they are do-ers. Though their intentions differ, they are the engines of the story, pushing through to conclusion. What about a protagonist who doesn’t actually do anything?
Mr Harry Flashman, he of the Flashman Papers, doesn’t ever achieve anything. In working through Flash For Freedom – the fifth memoir in the chronology – it’s notable how little pro-active behaviour Flashman engages him. He punches a man after a card game when in the heat of rage, and later pulls a gun on a slave-hunter to effect an escape when cornered, but never once does Harry Flashman engage in pro-activity. There is no mission he is on, nor objective to attain. Mr Harry Flashman has only one thing he cares deeply about – saving his own skin.
This all kicks off in 1848 in a drawing room of a London industrialist as Flashman is roped into helping a girl he fancies play baccarat after dinner. Also in the game are some Members of Parliament, including Disraeli himself. An old enemy of Harry’s, Bryant, sets him up with a false allegation of card sharping, including planting three cards in his jacket. Flashman’s estranged father-in-law Lord Paisley leaps on his disgrace as a chance to ship him off on a sailboat bound for the USA. Only…… it’s a slaver headed to Africa first.
From there, Flashman is like Old Mother Hubbard swallowing a spider to catch the fly. The ship takes on six hundred negro slaves but barely casts away when the captain, Spring, cuts a deal with the local chieftain for six of his Amazonian female bodyguards. The latter mutiny and several sailors are captured, tortured, and killed. By the time that kicked off, Flashman was already running to safety.
What follows is one unlucky break after another as the slaver is challenged by the US Navy and Flashman must concoct a convincing impersonation of a anti-slaving spy to evade the hangman, which then snowballs into more palaver. What’s notable is that Flashman is never the maker of his own destiny. He’s a selfish coward who never stands to fight, much less move towards danger in order to accomplish a higher goal. At each crisis point, Flashman always chooses the cowardly way out, of self preservation and betrayal, believing it better to run and live to hustle the streets another day.
What makes Flash For Freedom so engaging is how the narrator – Harry – conceives the situations, his feelings, and his assessment of others. It was written in 1971 and there’s not a jot of political correctness in there. The character is a shameless cad, lush, and racist  who finds himself both selling Africans into slavery, and then helping others escape out of slavery, according to how his circumstances play out towards best saving his own neck. He makes solemn promises to his companions and then relates in detail how many times he considers selling them out for momentary advantage. It’s the don’t-give-a-fuck directness of the pseudo-memoir style that makes it so engaging, how Flashman is so open and self-aware about his flakiness.
Just as with Black Ajax, I found George MacDonald Fraser to be extremely convincing in his recreation of the time period and the colourful characters within. I didn’t find any jarring anachronisms. You know the sort of thing I mean: women with feminist values in 1848, or blacks in government – the kind of mentality that makes modern Thor a transsexual and James Bond an African. Fraser writes everyone into believable positions for the times, but has no trouble creating fascinating characters. By casting everything into Flashman’s devil-may-care rogering swashbuckling style, it flavours the entire book with a sense of fast-paced facetious action.
Fraser is a good storyteller and this is a compelling narrative. The twists and turns of fate are all outside of Flashman’s hands but it’s his reaction to them – and commentary – that make it engrossing and often humorous. He’s an absolute cad. He has no qualms at all about taking on a job as a plantation slave-driver then pulling black wenches from the cotton fields to bed with him. When the jealous white mistress of the plantation flogs one wench, he simply sends the wounded girl back to the fields and replaces her with another. He’s utterly faithless and gets himself into non-stop trouble chasing skirt, so I imagine if he’d lived today he’d be a PUA. I wonder if Fraser is trying to make Flashman an unreliable narrator – by which the Flashman Papers are Harry’s attempts to create a fictional version of himself to impress future readers who take him at face value. If so, the cad truly hits below the belt.
If you’d like to read real, as opposed to fictional, memoirs than consider my series Balls Deep, A Deplorable Cad, Younger Hotter Tighter and Adventure Sex, all available here and on Amazon.
 My memoirs, for example.
 Like me until very recently.