By George MacDonald Fraser
George Macdonald Fraser has made a career of deconstructing classic genre fiction. The Flashman series is part homage, part parody, part mutation. The Pyrates carries the parody even further, this time instead of exploring every nook of the Victorian Empire, Fraser takes a run at the swashbuckling tales of Jeffery Farnol, Rafael Sabatini, Captain Johnson, Michael Curtiz, and dozens of others. The Flashman novels have footnotes, this one has a bibliography!
The tale follows Colonel Thomas Blood, who’d be a rakehell rapscallion, if only his luck would turn for just a minute. Alas, he is doomed to be overshadowed by handsome Ben Avery, the handsomest man in the Royal Navy. Avery is charged with delivering the Crown of Madagascar tot he ruler of that strategic nation (that is, an insect plagued bit of swamp the French happen to covet). Ben can’t help it if every damsel he passes falls violently, madly, obsessively in love with him. The only hitch is that the International Brotherhood of Pirates under their ferocious shop-steward Calico Jack Rackham are out to seize the crown, rescue their comrade Black Sheba (who is panting with lust for Avery) and save up for retirement. Complicating affairs is the disgusting Don Lardo, a villain of Sydney Greenstreet proportions and the Marquis de Sade’s predilections. Will the pirates and the Royal Navy put aside their animosity to unite against the real foe; Spaniards in possession of portable wealth? Pretty much, yeah.
For the record, Fraser’s hero Colonel Blood is NOT a knock-off of Sabatini’s Captain Blood. Rather he is a fictionalization of the real Col. Blood, an noted Irish schemer who was something of a one-man crime-wave. When he wasn’t plotting to overthrow the monarchy (or restore it, Blood’s politics were a bit murky), he was apt to do a bit of looting. Blood actually directed the heist of the century: he stole the Crown Jewels. Though he was immediately caught, Blood also managed a reversal that would have made O.J. envious. Blood was sentenced to a slow painful death (a seventeenth century specialty). But after being granted and interview His Majesty the King, Blood got a pardon and a Royal handshake. I guess the whole “sentenced to death thing” was just one of those wacky misunderstandings…
The Pyrates is a jolly romp through the cliches of the pirate tales of yore. Sometimes the humor gets a bit repetitious, but then there are gems like a description of a determined pirate chief as a man who, in modern times, would make a good Paratroop sergeant or a moderate Labour MP. Mr. Blair, take note.