TO BEGIN BY summing up: Mr. American will undoubtedly delight the readers of George MacDonald Fraser's seven earlier Flashman novels, will offer bountiful (albeit alloyed) pleasure to fans of Trollope and even of James (in his gamier moods), and wil probably disappoint readers who have been drawn to the book by reading its jacket copy, which promises a narrative of an entirely different character than the book is equipped to provide. However, to discuss either the book promised or that delivered is to betray virtually all of its narrative surprises. Therefore, readers already confirmed in their taste for Fraser's work, are advised to read no more of this review and to abstain, entirely, from the story-spoiling jacket copy, but simply to buy Mr. American and enjoy it at their leisure.
That warning made, I feel no compunction about giving away as much of the plot as can be found in the jacket's synopsis. The book's hero, Mark Franklin, was once a gun-fighter and bank robber in the Wild West. Having been redeemed from a life of crime by the good luck of discovering a lode of silver, Franklin travels in the year 1909 to England and is immediately accepted into its highest society by virtue of his good looks, gunfighterly reserve, immense wealth, and a fair share of auctorial collusion. Then, when his fortunes are most golden, having plighted troth with a young lady who would otherwise have been sacrificed to the dashtardly Lord Lacy, and having been admitted to the private circle of Edward VII at Sandringham -- at this pinnacle of wish-fullfillment, a Specter from his Past appears, and, in the words, of the jacket copy, "makes an appalling demand and threat. In handing him, Franklin has to put aside the gentlemanly veneer he has nurtured and come to love, and become a desperado once again." That in a nutshell is fully half the plot of the novel.
Readers who might, from such a promise, expect the last half of the book to chronicle the hero's deepening dilemma and resoucefulness in ever more desperate circumstances will not have such expectations fulfilled. The Specter from the Past is dealt with realistically and very summarily, and the novel returns to the theme it has been pursuing all along -- the slow and only slightly painful initiation of the "innocent" American gunfighter into the ironies and iniquities of the English class system.
As an ironist Fraser often fails through excess of kindness -- kindness to his readers, whom he indulges in wish-fulfilling fantasy at immoderate length, and to his characters, whom he regards too fondly, in a creatorly way, to allow them any but token blemishes. As a model-builder of representative Edwardian milieus he can be quite capable. Some of the best set-pieces, such as a bridge game rigged for Edward VII to win or the trial two suffragettes for having attacked a painting at the Royal Academy, can be enjoyed independently of the plot (for the good reason that they have little bearing on it).
It is as a mimic and originator of droll characters that Fraser comes into his own. Few readers will be able to resist the charm and chatter of Pip Delys, a music hall singer in the mold of Marie Lloyd, or the rascally General Flashman (now 92 years old), and so long as they remain center-stage one turns the pages smilingly. Fraser's comic muse is never outrageous, seldom even hilarious, and sometimes a bit genteel -- sherry as against stronger spririts, but a sherry of the best quality.
Is it fair, then, to complain that the book fails as melodrama, if melodrama was not intended (except by the writer of the jacket copy)? I think so, for there is a promise of melodrama innate in the book's premise. The American outlaw finding himself outgunned by (in General Flashman's words) the "criminal upper classes" could have been rendered (ideally) either in mock-epic style (like The Beggar's Opera) in which no one's moral pretensions are spared, or the author could have exploited the melodramatic trope of the Virtuous Criminal. The trick in these cases is to enlist the reader's vicarious sympathy for a good person trapped in a morally untenable position. Thus, in Beau Geste the hero must cover up his mother's crime and seem to steal the necklace she has purloined. Mr. American makes no clear dramatic commitment to either of those possibilities. Rather, Fraser opts for the deflation of melodramatic expectations without surrendering the narrative convenience of an Untarnished Hero. Never for a moment does Mark Franklin stop behaving like Gregory Peck. Readers who are also moviegoers will already have seen Gregory Peck perform this role, not only in the italicized flashbacks to The Gunfighter and other classic westerns but also in the movie based on Mark Twain's The Million Dollar Banknote, in which Peck undergoes the same metamorphosis from scruffy drifter to English gentleman. The more closely the lens of Fraser's moral intelligence focuses on the contradictions of the English class system, the more transparently unreal his hero appears. Such artifices need not spoil melodrama, but they don't sort well with the kind of satire that seems to have been intended.
Still and all, I ernjoyed the book, scene by scene and page by page, rather more than my theory allows for. It is a good Midsummer's Night Read and a persuasive evocation of what must be the favored destination of most time travelers.