Books - Business of state - John Mclaren on a conspiracy tale that owes more to James Bond than to the boardroom. The Bussiness, Iain Banks, Little, Brown & Co p - ounds 16.99.
You should steer clear of The Business if it is stock markets, cash-flows, and mergers that turn you on, because it has damn all to do with business. The Business in Iain Banks' new novel is a wild confection of Smersh, the Mafia, and the Masons. Perfect for any lover of conspiracy theories, it's the tale of a shadowy organisation that has existed since pre-Christian times with the sole purpose of making money. Uncorrupted by religion, politics or the like, it was a true meritocracy centuries before the concept was invented.
Its current wheeze is to acquire a state in order to get a seat at the UN (why anyone would want one I can't imagine). As its target, the Business picks a tiny Himalayan kingdom. Enter the heroine: a thirty-something Ms with a touch of Danny La Rue and a nuclear-powered sex drive. A middle-ranking Business operative who combines touching corporate loyalty with an engaging Greenpeace sensitivity, she saves the Business by trapping its rotten apples and the kingdom by marrying its king.
There is plenty of skulduggery, much zany sub-plotting, and inevitably a measure of gratuitous Caledonianism. The Blofeld flavour is encouraged by a liberal sprinkling of Ferraris, Lear Jets, and microchips, and indeed the whole book feels like early James Bond. The concept is very pre-internet. The characters use e-mail, but never seem to worry that, after more than 2,000 years, a disaffected employee with a modem could let the ancient cat out of the bag. MI6 would envy such serenity.
We'll have to withhold judgment on whether Banks could write a good business novel. He worked for a while for IBM in Greenock (near where the Business' microchip plant is located) and later as a costings clerk in London, which will have helped him tally the operation's billions. There's no smell of the boardroom here, though. Maybe he's smart to keep away. Thriller readers want spies, glamour, violence, anything that goes bang, and precious few real-world companies offer those.
The Business is bound to succeed, because Banks is so bankable. All his novels since 1993 (he pushes out one a year) have been in or around the best-seller lists and his many fans will lap this up too. Personally, I think he's at his best when he's being less intergalactic: he has a better feel for downtown Kircaldy than the inside of corporate jets.
John McLaren is a merchant banker turned thriller writer. His new book Black Cabs will be published in November.