Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson, a tattooed failure in the British Royal Navy who preferred going into battle wearing a skirt, would seem material...

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“Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika”
by Giles Foden
Knopf, 272 pp., $24

Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson, a tattooed failure in the British Royal Navy who preferred going into battle wearing a skirt, would seem material enough for a central character in an adventure tale about East Africa during World War I.

But by the time “The African Queen” had gone through the hands of novelist C.S. Forester and movie director John Huston, the eccentric smoker of cigarettes monogrammed with his own name had disappeared, to be replaced by Charlie Allnut and Rosie Sayer, the characters portrayed by Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in Huston’s 1951 movie.

Giles Foden’s book, “Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika,” reaches beyond the fictional “African Queen” to reclaim the true story that was its inspiration. That story was Spicer’s, who at the start of the war was the oldest lieutenant commander in the navy, sitting in disgrace in a London office because of a series of failures that resulted in two sunken British ships.

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Despite this dismal record, Spicer rises to the occasion by successfully transporting two armed motor launches — the Mimi and the Toutou — from England to Lake Tanganyika in East Africa, first as cargo on an oceangoing vessel to South Africa, then pulled by steam engines and oxen up the continent and finally hauled down rivers and on rail lines to 400-mile-long Lake Tanganyika, which was controlled by the Germans from their bases in German East Africa on the lake’s eastern shore.

Arriving in October 1915 after a five-month journey, Spicer immediately dons a skirt (“Very practical for the hot weather”). He captures one German vessel and sinks another.

But then Spicer mysteriously loses his nerve, refusing to send out his boats to face the last German ship on the lake and allowing the Germans to escape back to German East Africa in a later action. In August 1916, during the final battle for control of the lake and East Africa, Spicer and his flotilla are ordered to remain behind. The commander who once delighted in strutting about showing off his tattoos and dreaming of achieving fame and glory takes to his bed, staring all day at the ceiling until he is sent back to London, invalided because of “acute mental debility.” He finishes the war in the same desk job he held before the African campaign.

What would have made Spicer a wonderful literary character are his human frailties — he was a liar and braggart, ill-tempered and vain — and his metamorphosis from failure to success and back again. But in his 1935 novel, Forester chose a different means of creating drama, throwing together “hard-drinking riverboat captain Charlie Allnut and holier-than-thou Rose Sayer.”

Foden’s book explores the potential of Spicer as a literary character while detailing the history surrounding the military action in Africa. His descriptions of this minor campaign are fast-paced, and the book is filled with fascinating characters, none more so than Spicer, who eventually retired to Courtenay, B.C., where he died in 1947 at age 71.

The book draws heavily on a 1922 National Geographic article by Frank Magee, who was a member of Spicer’s expedition, and on Peter Shankland’s 1968 book “The Phantom Flotilla” — so much so, in fact, that the question comes up, “Why not read that book?”

Good luck finding it. The book is out of print and not readily available for purchase. Seattle Public Library has a copy, and if you want to know more about the military action, the Shankland book has mind-numbing detail. But if you’re happy to make a mild but satisfying acquaintance with this historical starting point for “The African Queen,” stick with Foden’s book.