In Review

Book of the week: Fall by John Preston

In a ‘wonderfully astute’ biography, Robert Maxwell is painted as ‘the perfect villain’ 

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston

“I have a shelf full of books about frauds,” said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. “This one is by far the most enjoyable.” It charts the life of Robert Maxwell, once the owner of the Daily Mirror, who rose from a childhood of grinding poverty in Czechoslovakia (where he was born Ján Hoch in 1923, later losing most of his family in the Holocaust) to become one of Britain’s richest men. When he died after falling from his yacht in 1991, the “great and the good lined up to praise him”: Margaret Thatcher spoke of his “energy, vision and resolve”; President Gorbachev professed himself “deeply grieved”. Yet all were soon forced to eat their words, as the extent of Maxwell’s deceit became clear: faced with spiralling debts and a fast-unravelling empire, he had stolen hundreds of millions from his employees’ pensions. “By turns self-righteous and revolting, Maxwell makes the perfect villain” – and in Fall, the journalist John Preston has produced a “wonderfully astute and clear-headed” biography. 

“Preston makes periodic attempts to find something nice to say about him” (mentioning, for instance, his “sentimental affection for dogs”), said Robert Harris in The Sunday Times. But there really was no end to Maxwell’s odiousness. He abused his children, psychologically and physically, and took pleasure in humiliating his employees, once waking his chief of staff in the middle of the night to ask the time. Fantastically greedy (he weighed 22 stone at his death), he “shovelled food into his mouth by the handful”. Once, dining with one other person, he ordered a Chinese takeaway for 14 people. Although the details are often grotesque (near the end of his life, Maxwell took to using towels as loo paper, leaving staff to pick them up), Preston’s book slips down “as pleasurably as a tablespoonful of Beluga caviar”. 

With his eyebrows dyed “almost indigo” and his “palpably affected” plummy accent, it wasn’t hard to spot that Maxwell was a fake, said Quentin Letts in The Times. So why did the British Establishment prove so tolerant of this “gargantuan conman”? Like “any good biography of a mountebank”, Fall is also a portrait of the “society that accommodated the monster”. Its publication feels timely, coming weeks after President Trump’s departure – and while Maxwell’s daughter, Ghislaine, is “detained on charges of sex trafficking and perjury”. This is a “jaw-dropping” story, said Lynn Barber in The Daily Telegraph. There have been other biographies of this compelling and monstrous character, but Fall is easily the best. “Well done, John Preston.”

Viking 352pp £18.99; The Week Bookshop £14.99

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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