This is the seventh novel, cast like its predecessors in the form of a memoir, detailing the adventures of Sir Harry Flashman, V.C., a 19th-century soldier and rake of whom his creator writes: "As students of these volumes will be aware, his personal character was deplorable, his conduct abandoned, and his talent for mischief apparently inexhaustible; indeed, his one redeeming feature was his unblushing veracity as a memorialist."
Sir Harry also possessed, as "Flashman and the Redskins" quite winningly demonstrates, a positive genius for stumbling into the right place at the right time. Here we find him in the United States, first in 1849-50 and then a quarter-century later. In the course of these relatively brief visits he manages, through luck both good and bad, to find himself trekking to California with the 49ers, making the acquaintance of Geronimo and Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickok, and fighting for survival at the Battle of Little Bighorn -- to mention only a few of the highlights. At one point he reflects:
" . . . during 18 months in the United States of America I had been laid out four times, married twice, shot twice (both from behind), blown up, chased for my life more often than I cared to remember, met some of the most appalling people, and . . . dammit, it wasn't worth it; sooner or later this bloody country was going to prove fatal."
For the reader, though, it proves consistently entertaining--not, perhaps, quite as hilarious as promised in the promotional material (" . . . leaves moralists and scholars aghast, and his devoted readers helpless with laughter"), but eminently satisfying. George MacDonald Fraser is a novelist of the old-fashioned school, one with an affection for long, complex tales, huge casts of characters and abundant historical detail, much of which is pleasantly unnecessary. Far more than the humorist and teller of bawdy tales that he is advertised as, Fraser is a solid historical novelist whose irreverence does not disguise the thoroughness of his research or the clarity of his vision:
"Washington, a dismal swamp at the best of times, was sweaty and feverish, and so were its inhabitants, with Grant's presidency soon to enter its final year and the whole foul political crew in a ferment of caballing and mischief. Any gang of politicos is like the eighth circle of Hell, but the American breed is specially awful because they take it seriously and believe it matters; wherever you went, to dinner or an excursion or to pay a call, or even take a stroll, you were deafened with their infernal prosing -- I daren't go to the privy without making sure some seedy heeler wasn't lying in wait to get me to join a caucus."
That paragraph occurs as Flashman returns to the States in 1875, unsuspectingly en route to a series of adventures that will involve him in lobbying Grant to restore Custer to his lost command; doing near-mortal combat with an enraged, because spurned, former mistress; and finding himself caught most uncomfortably in the middle as the fur flies at Custer's Last Stand. But that is only the end. The beginning involves his flight from New Orleans in the amorous clutches of a madam whom he has found it convenient to wed; his detour to the idyllic settlement of Santa Fe; his desperate trip through "the Jornada del Muerto--the terrible Journey of the Dead Man"; his second marriage, this to an ardent daughter of a Sioux chieftain. At one point he writes:
"I can safely say that had it not been for my odyssey which began in Orleans and ended at Fort Laramie in '50, the history of the West would have been different. George Custer might still be boring 'em stiff at the Century Club, Reno wouldn't have drunk himself to death, a host of Indians and cavalrymen would probably have lived longer, and I'd have been spared a supreme terror."
But of course neither old Flashy nor the reader would miss a moment of it. Though "Flashman and the Redskins" goes on rather too long, as do most of Fraser's previous books, it is an excess that readers will welcome more than deplore. The pleasures of being immersed in a tangled plot that takes its own good time about coming to resolution are quite substantial, and much to be welcomed in a time when fiction tends to be thinly populated and anemic. George MacDonald Fraser has not yet found an American audience comparable in size to the one that C.S. Forester won for his incomparable Horatio Hornblower novels, but give him time; he deserves a large and happy readership.