Tim Waterstone is the man who set up the bookshop chain in 1982, so you might expect him to have read a few books, and be OK at writing them. In fact, he’s more a businessman than a writer. He began life as a broker in Calcutta, before becoming marketing manager for Allied Breweries and W. H. Smith.
But it turns out that Waterstone is rather a skilled thriller writer; his publicity people are doing him a disservice in their promotional literature by comparing him to Jeffrey Archer (the novel’s gallumphing Archeresque title apart).
He has wisely chosen two worlds he knows about to set his thriller in — business and publishing. It’s a thinly disguised milieu he’s dealing with, too. What might the big bookselling chain, Waterwell’s, be based on? Which merchant bank could he be referring to when he talks about Warings — ‘old money, old establishment, shitty old Warings’? And who does Rod Tadlock, the maverick Australian newspaper owner with a taste for corporate takeovers, remind one of?
All these shades of the truth, mixed in with Waterstone’s own experiences of publishing and business, give the thriller a convincing feel. It revolves around the story of a pair of newspapers, the Daily Meteor and the Sunday Correspondent, that have been in the same family for generations, until the internet started affecting sales.
The ageing newspaper patriarch, Lord Kimpton, in desperation to keep the paper in the family, gets a loan from the Rupert Murdoch figure and, fatally, also agrees to a killer clause in the loan contract: should the paper need more money, the contract says, then the Murdoch figure has first call on the paper’s shares.
This, more or less, was the deal that the Berry family, owners of the Daily Telegraph for much of the 20th century, struck with Conrad Black; meaning that Black took control of the paper in 1986, until recent difficulties led him to sell it. Unlike the Berrys, though, the Kimpton family do end up keeping the paper in the family, thanks to a business masterstroke by the eldest son, Ned.
All these dealings are skilfully described; but perhaps it gets a little dull with sentences like:
We invest £90m now, for 23% of the common stock, and then have the sole right to subscribe further funds in the future, at par, and at my sole discretion as to how much, and when.
Not one for the beach, then, unless you’re a hedge-funder holidaying in Barbados.
The newspaper theme does allow for a less number-crunchy sub-plot via the life of a Daily Meteor columnist and novelist, Anna Lavey (who Private Eye has suggested is modelled on the late Beryl Bainbridge). Lavey’s publisher is in turn betrayed by his wife, who’s having an affair with a highly civilised Lothario of a Labour Cabinet Minister. Step forward Roy Jenkins in all but name and lisp.
Waterstone dangles all these loose ends in a jolly enough way, sprinkling a little light sex and skulduggery along the plot lines. The ends are tied up a little too rapidly and neatly, though. There’s a bit of obvious plot exposition thrown in, too, and a touch of thrillerese from time to time: ‘That parvenu of an Australian’, ‘You’re one great kid. God bless you.’ And some of the dialogue is plain ludicrous. Has anyone really said ‘I’m desperately behindhand’ since the 18th century?
These clumsinesses and hackneyed devices are a let-down. Waterstone writes perfectly well without needing their support. If he hadn’t used them, a readable thriller might have been a very good one.