I can’t remember when I last enjoyed a book so much. I picked it up on Friday morning, and – even with a 12-hour working day in the middle – I’d read the first 200-odd pages that night. The last time I did that, I suspect, was when I devoured John Dickson Carr’s detective stories as a boy.
And Fraser, I’d wager, also read Carr. At the very least, they’re kindred souls. Spirited, often bawdy, raconteurs, with crackling prose and a rollicking sense of humour; enthusiasts for tales of swashbuckling romance; devotees of Dumas and Doyle; amateur historians; and Tories.
If you enjoy one, you’d enjoy the other. Fraser’s best known for the Flashman Papers, the memoirs of Sir Harry Flashman VC, KCB, KCIE, coward, rotter, and rogue, who romps and rogers his way through 19th century history.
Flashman appears here, as a very old man, but it’s not a Flashman story.
The protagonist is Mr. Mark Franklin, miner made rich and ex-gunman, who comes to London in 1909.
He buys his ancestral manor, is adored by the villagers, marries the angel-faced Peggy, and is involved with the earthy, loveable music-hall singer Pip, and with Lady Helen, a snooty suffragette.
There are midnight shoot-outs with a Western black hat, bridge with a petulant Edward VII, Irish gun-running, a trial, and a duel of wits with a policeman.
The book is also an elegy for Britain; it’s set in the dying days of the long 19th century, before WWI swept away the old Europe and the old certainties – a trauma from which, arguably, the West still hasn’t recovered.