The Godfather: Peter Corris on Flashy
By now there are probably about 200 book-length pastiches of Sherlock Holmes in print. One of the earliest, and to my mind one of the best, was Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974). It captured the flavour of the original and was a best-seller, inspiring a film.
Many of the others attempted to link Holmes to the notable events of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras – Jack the Ripper, the Boer War, the beginnings of the British intelligence service. I seem to recall one that had Holmes encounter Dracula and another that had him visit Australia. Many of the books were silly and some, such as those teaming Holmes up with Irene Adler, the only woman Holmes was said to have allowed under his guard, were absurd. But still they keep coming.
Raymond Chandler’s estate protected his copyright in the Philip Marlowe character and licensed American crime writer Robert B Parker to complete a novel left unfinished by Chandler. This was published in 1989 as Poodle Springs and was followed by a pastiche, Perchance to Dream (1991). Parker had written his doctoral dissertation on the work of Chandler, Hammett and Ross Macdonald and knew what he was about. The books caught the Chandler flavour well enough.
In similar fashion, Ian Fleming’s estate has licensed James Bond books written by reputable authors. Kingsley Amis’s Colonel Sun (1968) was a success. Like Parker, Amis was steeped in the Bond canon, having written The James Bond Dossier (1966), which analysed the appeal of the Bond books. Amis knew what made them tick.
John Gardner, an accomplished thriller writer, produced 16 solid Bond imitations. Sebastian Faulks’s 2008 effort, Devil May Care, updating Bond, was a failure in my view with an excess of product-placement touches. But it was a best-seller. William Boyd, a fine writer of espionage novels, is also now at work on a Bond book.
So it is not surprising that the popular character Harry Flashman, the superb creation of George MacDonald Fraser, has not been allowed to rest quietly with the dead author.
I can remember the joy with which I read the first Flashman novel. I was in London in 1970 on a post-doctoral fellowship working at the British Museum Reading Room and the Public Records Office, immersed in British colonial history. It was the perfect time and place to appreciate MacDonald Fraser’s witty manipulation of history. In the following years I got hold of the Flashman novels as they came out and eventually owned all of them, mostly in hardback.
Some were better than others, but I was never disappointed. Flashman in the Great Game (1976), in which cowardly but resourceful Harry is caught up in events surrounding the Indian Mutiny, remains my favourite. I’ve read it and several of the books in the series more than once.
Browsing for an e-book historical novel, I discovered Robert Brightwell’s Flashman and the Sea Wolf (2012). It purported to be the memoirs of Harry Flashman’s uncle, Thomas, a similar scoundrel, operating at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. I was sceptical but at $2.99 it was hardly a major investment and I was pleasantly surprised. Robert Brightwell has produced a rollicking adventure story with an authentic historical flavour and plenty of action in the MacDonald Fraser mode.
While Brightwell doesn’t have quite the impressive historical apparatus of MacDonald Fraser, the comic episodes are well constructed, the blending of fact and fiction is smooth, his character is engaging and, sensibly, not a slavish copy of the original. There are a few slips: ‘surreal’ and ‘back-up’ were not in the vocabulary of Regency England and the description of someone as ‘timid and easily intimidated’ is not felicitous. But when Thomas comments that he has never really felt a murderous bloodlust ‘except once in a debate with some Liberals in the Reform Club’ he strikes the right comic reactionary note.
Brightwell has another title to his credit, Flashman and the Cobra (2012), which I’ll read one day. Another author, H C Tayler, has written Harry Flashman and the Invasion of Iraq (2012), about a modern distant relation of Harry’s. Somehow I still feel too angry about that act of criminal warmongering to attempt the book.