The Flashman books are the best historical novels I’ve ever read (*). For those who don’t know, Flashman was the school bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, expelled from Rugby for drunkenness, much to the reader’s edification. The conceit of the Fraser’s books is that after being expelled, Flashman–still a bully, a coward, a cad, a compulsive womanizer, a liar, a cheat, and generally an all-around rotter–joined the army, and went on to be involved in every interesting event of the Victorian era, many of which (the charge of the Light Brigade, Little Bighorn, etc) he survived either by surrendering or running away. Needless to say he lived to a ripe old age, hailed as a hero: mostly because those who knew what he really was tended to end up dead.
The books are meticulously researched, extraordinarily well-written, and tremendously entertaining. Historical novels tend to be dry and stilted, even more so than contemporary novels. Writing believable dialog is difficult (at least, to judge from how few people do it well), and writing believable dialog in an approximation of another era’s idiom especially so. Fraser did it brilliantly. Very few authors can conjure up such period atmosphere so convincingly.
Alas, now we’ll never know how Flashy lost the battle of Gettysburg for the Confederacy, or to what use Grant or Lee (it could have been either) put his striking resemblance to JEB Stuart.
(*) The very first historical novel, which runs through the Biblical books of I and II Samuel, is good too, but that’s another story.