The latest historical romp from veteran thriller/detective storywriter Rathbone (Kings of Albion, 2002, etc.) jauntily exposes the underside of 19th-century parliamentary “reform.”
Visions of George MacDonald Fraser’s affable antihero Harry Flashman may dance through reader’s heads as they sample the exploits and lies of Rathbone’s protagonist Charlie Boylan. Not your typical hero, Charlie stands four feet eight inches and is almost unbecomingly hirsute (though impressively proportioned otherwise, as numerous wenches cheerfully attest). The tale begins, quite winningly, with Charlie’s misadventures in the trenches during the Battle of Waterloo. Flash-forward several decades: the Napoleonic Wars are long since concluded, and we encounter Charlie in prison, after he had marched into Whitehall with a loaded pistol, demanding withheld payment for his services as a secret agent (known as Agent 003, in a witty nod to Ian Fleming). This very entertaining if somewhat scattered tale continues with generously detailed accounts of how Charlie industriously altered the course of history, after having “saved Europe from barbarism” while still a hormonally driven adolescent. In addition to committing various murders and masterminding almost as many atrocities, Charlie has sturdily prevented the assassination of Queen Victoria, arranged the death by drowning of dangerous “radical” poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and—for reasons best left to the reader to uncover—accompanied Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle. The only thing that significantly mars the fun is Rathbone’s relentlessly jokey tone. But Charlie—either an amazingly resilient little big man or a “misshapen troll,” depending on your politics—almost casually blackmails miscreants posing as public servants, outwits “interrogators” assigned to monitor his activities, and circumvents efforts to prevent the publication of his scurrilous “memoirs.”
Over-the-top, enjoyably R-rated entertainment from an old pro who appears to be having the time of his life.