George MacDonald Fraser

Black Ajax

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

George MacDonald Fraser is best known for his excellent Flashman series, set in Victorian times; this book is also a historical novel but deals with the slightly earlier Regency period (Flashman's father, Buckley, figures in it). It is a novelization of the life of the black boxer Tom Molyneaux. He began life as a slave in Virginia, where he was used as a fighter by his owner, who offered him his freedom as an inducement to win a tough contest. He then came to England with the intention of becoming a professional pugilist and fighting the seemingly invinciple champion of England, Tom Cribb. This he eventually did, on two occasions, but both times he lost; Fraser implies that he could have won were it not for his irresistible addiction to drink and sex. He died in relative poverty and obscurity at the age of 34, while on tour in Ireland.

The story is told in the form of a series of monologues, as if given in interviews by people who knew Molyneaux. These include his trainer and his second (both former boxers), the aforementioned Buckley Flashman, and assorted journalists and other onlookers. Each character has a distinctive voice and some of them use nigh-impenetrable boxing argot of the period, necessitating a glossary; the use of this argot is one of the delights of the book. This is a remarkable feat of impersonation; you get the impression that you really are hearing the speech of people of the time. The actual contests are vividly described and sound truly horrific; it's easy to agree with Fraser's comment, in an epilogue, that no modern boxer would be willing or able to take part in a battle of that kind. There were no limits to the number or duration of the rounds and a fight was over only when one of the boxers was unable to "come up to scratch". (Incidentally, one of the minor joys of this book is the way it shows how many everyday expressions in modern English have their origin in the boxing ring.)

This is an unusual and fascinating story, well worth reading even if you are not particularly interested in boxing.

%T Black Ajax
%A Fraser, George MacDonald
%I HarperCollins
%C London
%D 1997
%G ISBN 0 00 649981 3
%P 248 pp

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