Readers of Tom Brown's Schooldays, if any there are today, will be familiar with Harry Flashman, Tom's cowardly and caddish persecutor who was finally expelled from Rugby for drunkenness in the 1830s. George Macdonald Fraser conceived the masterly idea of following up Flashman's career in a series of novels. He purportedly discovered Flashman's memoirs in a collection of unpublished manuscripts, and the result has been a series of some of the most enjoyable light novels to have appeared in the twentieth century. Although Fraser's aim is entertainment, however, he blends this with a considerable amount of seamlessly integrated historical information, as Flashman lands in one hotspot after another in his peregrination through the world.
In the present book Flashman finds himself, through a series of misadventures, stranded in the USA, just before the outbreak of the civil war. A series of misidentifications too complex to summarize leads to his becoming a double (or even triple) agent attached as a military adviser to John Brown, who is planning to carry out the celebrated raid on Harper's Ferry that indirectly precipitated the war. Some of Flashman's various employers (abolitionists, Southerners, the US government) want him to facilitate Brown's plans, others want him to frustrate them, while Flashman himself wants only to escape from the situation without getting killed. Much of the book is concerned with his attempts to extricate himself from his predicament. Like the other Flashman novels, this is chiefly an adventure story, enlivened by erotic scenes as Flashman becomes embroiled with various ladies along the way; but the enigmatic character of Brown himself (part hero, part libertarian, part humbug, part muddle-headed bungler) lends an additional psychological interest. Flashman finds him intensely irritating yet feels a certain respect and even affection for him. And the convention that Fraser is annotating a manuscript allows the inclusion of notes; there are also appendices on Brown's character and on the puzzling failure of the US administration to prevent the raid although they knew of it well in advance.