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05.21.08

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Phaedra

The Reavers

By Richard von Busack


God, I love reviewing a dead man's book. No danger, now, of tearing a hard-working author's heart with ambiguous praise or the full-on pan. The creator of the knighted yellowbelly Flashman leaves behind a posthumously published novel, akin to a jazz master's 75-minute version of "My Funny Valentine": an exhibit of virtuosity that makes one's feet itch for the exit. Set in the 1590s in the lawless borderland between Scotland and England, this vertiginous comic novel tells of a quartet of hot-blooded men and women trying to stop an unclean plot to switch King James of Scotland with an identical if more suggestible dolt. Protagonists include Godiva "Goddy" Dacre, a Tudor-era babe "bottlefed on loyalty, weaned on honor, nourished on patriotism and (when needs arrive) slimming on self-sacrifice"; her naughty maid, Kylie Delishe; and Archie and Bonny, a pair of heroes on either side of the law. The looseness of the narrative, and the S.J. Perelman–like mania of the prose is genial. The author, who wrote dialogue for James Bond, Superman and the Three Musketeers in his day, seems to be name-checking 80 years' worth of the pulp fiction he loved. Nothing really holds it together except the burbling wit of the writer. Fraser gave us, his bereaved readers, one last gift, though: a bursting trove of filch-worthy rhinestones for the literary magpie. A burlesque troupe called "Hardwick's Peeling Belles" is but one of a million groaners. Another is this fine description of a lover giving his lady a good Hollywood kiss: he was "apparently trying to eat his way through to the back of her head." (By George MacDonald Fraser; Knopf; 268 pages; $24 cloth)


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