Running Rings; By John McLaren; Simon & Schuster pounds 10.00.
A call from Management Today. 'Would you like to review a book? We don't usually review novels, but this one is about management consultants so we thought you might be interested.' So I did, though with some apprehension about what I was about to read.
Believe me, there are nice management consultants. Honest. But I can't say I was optimistic that I was going to read about them. And I was right.
The central character, Rupert, is a management consultant. He is a thoroughly unlikeable person.
Nevertheless, I set off with both goodwill and high expectation. Goodwill, because the author, like me, believes passionately that we must support the development of serious contemporary music (totally irrelevant, of course, to his skills as a writer). My high expectations were based on hearing that Black Cabs, his previous novel, was a good read.
Alas, I found I was rather disappointed by the first half of the book: 180 pages seemed a very long read just to establish the background facts.
These set about explaining how Rupert is aspiring to become a partner.
At the same time, he is moonlighting - trying, unsuccessfully, to get a high-tech 'play' off the ground. The consulting firm is thinking of either going public or selling itself to a Californian software firm. And there is a lot of stuff about the nature of consultancy projects and consulting firms.
It's not that the description of consultancy is totally wrong. It isn't.
Moreover, I can hardly say that it is improbable that a consulting firm should consider going public (as my firm has) or selling itself to a software firm (as Ernst & Young did).
But the reality (or, rather, what I would prefer to think of as a caricature of reality) is piled on relentlessly. And to make it even more 'real', the dialogue is laden with jargon (yes, yes, I know that we have been known to use jargon, but it doesn't make for a very readable novel).
Without exception, the consultants are hugely vain, political and greedy.
They are mostly very clever, but totally stupid when it comes to handling relationships and matters of judgment. Rupert displays all these qualities to the full. His girlfriend, a corporate lawyer (and, despite that, a nice person!) is, unfathomably, much in love with him. She is the daughter of a gangster but, not surprisingly, keeps quiet about it.
Rupert gets to meet her father, who has a string of restaurants and clubs that are run as covers. Keen to prove he can bring in clients of his own, he signs them up to the consultancy. When he discovers the reality of the business, he begins to apply his clever consultant's brain to devising schemes to reinvent crime and deliver some serious money. Mission statements, risk appraisal techniques and re-engineered processes abound. Soon, the criminal family begins to 'run rings' round the police.
Despite all this action, the stereotyped, cardboard characters and the rather leaden dialogue remain stubbornly flat on the page, at least for the first half of the book.
What could perhaps have taken off into a rather delicious and witty fantasy refuses to do so. Instead, one is left to ponder the sheer implausibility of events, particularly since it is in the context of such carefully planned realism.
Even so, McLaren does have ideas - lots and lots of them. And in the second half of the book he lets rip. The characters never really develop, but at last you begin to care what might happen to some of them.
As new invention follows new invention, you cannot help but be swept along by the pace and inventiveness of the action. You no longer have time to ponder the implausibilities, you are simply propelled at high speed towards the denouement. Then, with the aid of a second-hand tank, it does at last begin truly to take off into something fantastical. The bad guys get their comeuppance and honour is satisfied.
McLaren is a very clever and inventive man. It's a shame he doesn't seem to like consultants.