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George MacDonald Fraser and the Incomparable Flashman

Pictured here is my well worn copy of the first Flashman novel I ever read.  It has since been around the block a few times.  Passed around and read by quite a few others, somehow it has always found its way back home.

It was early in my second year of college, and I was having difficulty getting into the swing of things.  Wandering aimlessly through the book store I came across what I soon determined would be just the elixir for my doldrums – Flashman at the Charge!
     “Winner of the Playboy Award for the Best Novel of the Year”.
     “The all-time ace of boudoir Olympics is back in action!”
Sold!  And so it proved to be the start of many hours of pleasurable reading over many years – not just the Flashman novels, but many of Fraser’s other works as well.
So, well into my enjoyment of these writings, when I first began to collect books, Flashman was the only logical place to start.  Not only were these books wonderful reading – exciting, often laugh-out-loud funny, and historically detailed – they were also wonderful to look at, with fantastic artwork on the dust jackets and always plenty of anticipation-rousing blurbs and reviews.  The cover designs of the first UK editions and the first US editions offered variances that made each worth owning.
In May of 2002 my wife, Kathy, planned a trip for us to the Isle of Man, where it just so happened George MacDonald Fraser made his home.  She talked to the owner of the B&B she had booked about the possibility of us being able to meet Mr. Fraser, and the gentlemen told her that he had once owned a bookstore and knew George MacDonald Fraser and would be glad to arrange a meeting for us.  This was exciting stuff.  I carefully packed a somewhat reasonably-sized carry-on bag with as many books as I could get into it.
When we arrived we learned that the B&B proprietor knew Fraser in the sense that he was aware of him.  He knew his books.  He had sold some of them in his book store.  He did not know him personally.  Nevertheless, at my wife’s prodding, he got out his telephone directory and got in touch with Mr. Fraser who agreed to meet us on Saturday afternoon at his golf club.
Mr. Fraser had recently turned 77.  He was just recovering from a cold.  That Saturday was a beautiful sunny afternoon.  I’m sure he had many things he would have preferred to do, likely including spending time with his grandchildren.  Nevertheless, he graciously came to meet us.
We arrived early.  He arrived soon after.  We sat comfortably in a lounge area with very large and well-cushioned chairs and convenient tables.  He chatted cheerfully while signing every one of the books I had hauled in.  He commented that some of the books I had were actually quite valuable now.  He seemed particularly pleased that I had included a copy of Hollywood History of the World and informed me that an updated edition had been issued in paperback only.
He sat, signed, and talked for almost an hour.  I was a bit awestruck, but he made it very easy to feel at home and enjoy the moment.  I remember him telling how as Flashman got popular he fairly often got calls from young fellows, usually college age, asking all sorts of details about Flashman.  The calls came at all hours, but he would take them and talk as long as they wanted to talk, at times somewhat to the consternation of his wife.  He would take the telephone out into the hall and sit on the steps and listen and talk.  And that’s the way he was.  On the day he met with us he seemed genuinely delighted that we cared enough for his work that we would want to visit with him.
We were there during the Isle of Man TT Races.  These are motorcycle time trials that draw enthusiasts from far and near.  At that time as well, Mr. Fraser’s new book “Light’s on at Signpost” was just recently out in book stores.  Signed copies were available, so I bought one for my collection and to carefully read on the flight home.  I learned that the title is a reference to the TT’s.  Multiple laps are run during a time trial.  When a contestant has one lap remaining, there will be a light on at the signpost to signify so.  Similarly Mr. Fraser knew that at his age he had ridden quite a few laps and apparently perceived the light to be on at signpost.  But that is all in the book, and he tells it far better than I.
After we got home, I wrote a letter to Mr. Fraser thanking him for his kindness and hospitality.  In the book I had just read, Mr. Fraser had apologized in advance to all the people who might write to him because he knew he would not be able to personally answer all of them.  Nevertheless, not long after our letter, my wife and I received a response from him.  A short but very nice thank you note, it was unexpected and is now one of our prized possessions.
Then, in November a package arrived one day from the Isle of Man.  Inside was a copy of the updated edition of Hollywood History of the World that Mr. Fraser had told us about during our visit.  He had signed it on the title page and included a brief note, “The revised version, with compliments & all good wishes to you both – George Fraser.”
Wow, what a kind and generous man.
I will always be grateful to my wife for planning that trip to the Isle of Man.  It’s a beautiful place, and even without the meeting, we had a wonderful time.  Still, she planned the trip knowing what a fan I am of Mr. Fraser and took all the extra steps to make a dream come true for me.

And I will always be grateful for the many happy hours provided me by Flashman and the incomparable George MacDonald Fraser.

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Two Cards from St. Louis

Recently I purchased a post card for my collection.  It was to be a duplicate, but I wanted it all the same because I liked the card and the written message on it.  The card is labeled Harbor Boat “Mark Twain”, St. Louis, Mo. and has a picture of that boat in the early 1900’s.
“Miss Ella” had sent it to a young fellow (based on the useof the title “Master” in the address), perhaps a neighbor’s son or a favored student, for speculation sake.  On the front she had written, “How would you like to ride on this boat?”.  The card is dated 1908, and what red-blooded young man of that time would not want to ride on a steamboat? Perhaps he even dreamed of piloting steamboats just like the boat’s namesake, Mark Twain, had done.  At any rate it is a card and message that can easily promote a bit of pleasant daydreaming.
Now, to the rest of the story.  I recorded the card in my database and noted that it was postmarked September 26, 1908. When I filed the card, I pulled out the duplicate card I had purchased previously and looked it over.  It too
had a message on the front, “Love from Uncle Charlie & Aunt Ella”.  Then, on the back I saw that it was postmarked September 25, 1908.  Both cards were postmarked from St. Louis.  The writing on the two cards is similar but does not look exactly alike.  Still, it’s quite possible that one was written by Charlie and the other by Ella.
There is solid ground to conclude that these two cards were sent by the same couple just one day apart in September of 1908.  I had purchased the first in March, 2007, and now in January, 2015 had come into possession of the other.  Perhaps Charlie and Ella sent even more of that same card while on that trip to St. Louis, and eventually they too will find their way here.  Good times.  Good times.
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A Fun, New Murder Mystery series by Steve Hockensmith and Lisa Falco

I recently learned that Steve Hockensmith has a new book out. 

The White Magic Five & Dime is a contemporary mystery with a tarot theme and is co-written with Lisa Falco.
While perusing the shelves in a local bookstore some years back, I’d guess 2007, I came across a colorful book with an interesting title, and after reading the blurbs decided to give it a chance. 

Holmes on the Range introduced me to the writing of Steve Hockensmith and to the Amlingmeyer brothers, the central characters of the book, and to the four books that followed. There’s a signed first edition of the book on ABE Books.

My wife and I usually have a designated book that we read aloud together – on car trips or when we just feel like reading together.  I enjoyed Holmes on the Range enough that I recommended it to her.  After that, each book in the series became our designated book.  We followed the Amlingmeyer brothers through adventure, drama, close shaves, and laughter in:  On the Wrong Track, The Black Dove, The Crack in the Lens, and The World’s Greatest Sleuth.

If you like a mystery, especially light-hearted with humorous dialog and cliff-hanging situations, you likely will enjoy this series of books.  The Amlingmeyer brothers are cowboys turned sleuths, and a classic pair of brothers they are.  Opposites in most ways, but each with attributes that complement the other’s in their endeavors at sleuthing and fighting their way out of tight situations. They are usually at odds with each other, but always looking out for each other.  As you ride along on their adventures and laugh at their disagreements, you also learn their backgrounds and their family history, and you see the relationship between them evolve.  Good fun, good reads.
There is also a book of short stories titled Dear Mr. Holmes that adds to the background of the brothers as well as some additional adventures.

Steve Hockensmith has been a prolific and diverse writer over the past eight or so years.  In addition to books already noted he has written several zombie-themed novels and co-written a series of quirky novels for middle-grade kids.  Add to that a couple of books of mystery short stories titled, Blarney: 12 Tales of Lies Crime and Mystery and Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime.

The zombie books include Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:  Dawn of the Dreadfuls which is a prequel to Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a Jane Austin revamp.  Hockensmith followed that with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:  Dreadfully Ever After.  He also published Cadaverin Chief:  A Special Report from the Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse.

The middle-grade books were co-written with Bob Pflugfelder and include:  Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab, Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle, Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage, and Nick and Tesla’s Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove.

I have read only the Amlingmeyer novels and short stories.  The others are outside my normal reading genres, though I am sure Hockensmith’s writing skills would serve them well.  The new mystery novel (The White Magic Five & Dime) is one that I plan to read, and I look forward to meeting some new characters from the source that gave us Big Red and Otto Amlingmeyer.   

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The Real Huck Finn??

For as long as I can recall, it has been my understanding that the real inspiration for Mark Twain’s character, Huckleberry Finn, was a childhood companion by the name of Tom Blankenship.  Yes, I have read that in an 1885 interview Twain stated that Huck Finn was not based on any one person, but was a composite of several.  However, in Mark Twain’s Autobiography Twain said, “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was.  He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.”  Tom Blankenship has long been stored in my mind as the real Huck Finn.
Recently I obtained a stack of old papers related to Mark Twain – a couple of advertising pamphlets, some clipped magazine ads, and some clipped newspaper articles.  One of the articles was titled “Huckleberry” Finn is Oregon Fisherman Now.  I read the article and was somewhat confounded.  According to this the real Huckleberry Finn was a man named B. F. Finn.  I have included a scan so that those wishing to read the article can do so.  Click on the image to enlarge it.  Then click the white X in the upper right hand corner within the black-framed area to return.
The article was clipped.  The newspaper was not identified and the date was not given.  I wanted to know more, so I began searching on the internet and came across this article apparently from the Sunday Oregonian, March 15, 1915.  It was very similar to the clipped article I have, but with some differences.  The Oregonian article states that the subject, B. F. Finn, is 90 years old.  My article says he is 92, so it may have been printed a couple of years later.  The pictures of him from the two articles are different, but it looks as though he is wearing the same clothes and carrying the same stick.
Some interesting points from the articles include:
  • B. F. Finn grew up near Samuel Clemens and remembered him well.  However he says that he and the other boyhood chums called Clemens “Charley”.  Throughout the article he refers to Clemens as “Charley”.  One of the articles states about Finn, “he tells of his boyhood days on the Missouri farm, near that of Clemens.”  It does not say where in Missouri – Florida, Hannibal, or elsewhere.
  • B. F. Finn was not called Huckleberry when he was a boy.  That came later.  According to the articles a “Huckleberry” was someone on a boat who was charged with keeping fisticuffs to a minimum by breaking in and ending them when they erupted.  B. F. Finn held this position at some point during his riverboat days and became known as Huckleberry Finn.
  • B. F. Finn talks about the times he, Charley Clemens, and Tom Sawyer were on riverboats together.  There is no explanation given as to whether or not there is any connection to this Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain’s character Tom Sawyer.  The matter is not addressed.
  • Finn refers to two ships in his discussions – the Shotwell and the Gray Eagle.  The Shotwell was commanded by a Captain Hall and at one time held the record for fastest time from New Orleans to St. Louis.  Supposedly around that time Clemens was one of the pilots of the Shotwell, and Finn was the first mate.  Later, Clemens, Finn, and Sawyer went in together and bought the Gray Eagle.  Two years later, they bet Captain Hall they could beat him to St. Louis, and they did so by a wide margin.
I have done at least a minimal amount of research to see if I could verify the stories.  I found several listings of the steamboats that Clemens piloted, and none included the Shotwell or the Gray Eagle.  I found a reference to a race between a boat called the Eclipse and the Shotwell.  Twain talks about these two boats in Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 16, Racing Days (see paragraphs 4 and 12), but does not say that he was ever on either of them.
From the Steamboat Times website, which cites as a source Old times on the Mississippi:  reflections of a steamboat pilot, by George Byron Merrick, I also found that there was a well-known race of sorts between the Itasca and the Grey Eagle.  Twain was not involved.  B. F. Finn and Tom Sawyer are not mentioned.  The Grey Eagle of this race is spelled with an “e” in Grey (except for once) whereas in the articles about B. F. Finn, it is spelled with an “a”.  Still it is reasonable to think the same boat is being referenced.  The time frame of the mid-1850’s leading up to about 1860 seems to fit.
The Steamboat Times states, “Captain D. Smith Harris had, the year before, brought out the “Grey Eagle”, which had been built at Cincinnati at a cost of $60,000.”  The year would have been 1855.  The newspaper article states, according to Finn, that he, Clemens, and Sawyer bought the boat for $9,000 and later were paid $12,000 for it.
So, was B. F. Finn the real Huckleberry Finn?  To me, it seems very doubtful.  I could find no mention of him by Samuel Clemens, though my search was far from exhaustive.  This is pure speculation, but the thought comes to me that B. F. Finn, being 90+ years old, could have been confused about certain facts at the time the articles were written.  He may have been a “huckleberry” on a riverboat at one time and may have been given the nickname of Huckleberry Finn.  He may have known a Charley Clemens.  Likely he had spent time on the river.  He may have been on one or more of the boats mentioned.  Samuel Clemens may have even known him or of him and the name may have influenced the name of his character, or it may have been coincidence.  It’s hard to say.
For now, with lack of further evidence, I will continue to consider Tom Blankenship to be the real Huck Finn, but I would like to know more about B. F. Finn and the life he led, particularly on the Mississippi River.
I would appreciate comments from anyone who knows anything that can shed more light on this topic.
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Mark Twain’s Quick Thinking Saved Old Man Hankinson

This is an old, clipped newspaper article (newspaper unknown and date unknown) titled and sub-titled:
    Humorist, Tired of Listening to Series of Remarkable Stories, Rose to the Occasion.
Here is the content of the article:
A naval officer said at a banquet in New York:
“Some of the war stories that I hear remind me of Mark Twain.  Mark, you know, once sat in the smoking room of a steamer and listened for an hour or two to some remarkable lies.  Then he drawled:”
‘”Boys, these feats of yours that you’ve been telling about recall an adventure of my own in Hannibal.  There was a fire in Hannibal one night, and old man Hankinson got caught in the fourth story of the burning house.   It looked as if he was a goner.  None of the ladders was long enough to reach him.  The crowd stared at one another with awed eyes.  Nobody could think of anything to do.  Then all of a sudden, boys, an idea occurred to me.  “Fetch me a rope!” I yelled.  Somebody fetched a rope, and with great presence of mind I flung the end of it up to the old man.  “Tie her round your waist!” I yelled.  Old man Hankinson did so and I pulled him down.’”