Head Hunters; By Michel Crespy; Harvill pounds 10.99
Michel Crespy's novel has enjoyed considerable success in his native France, winning that country's 2001 Grand Prix for thrillers. Fluently translated by John Brownjohn, it's a gripping read with more than a flavour of an executive version of Lord of the Flies. In addition, Crespy's description of some of the methods of senior executive searches, such as psychometric testing and interviewing, are probably of more use than many a self-help book on the same topics.
Jerome Carceville, a high-flying senior executive reared in the elite Grandes Ecoles of France, finds himself made unceremoniously redundant by his blue-chip employer. With bills to pay, he immediately embarks on a job search. But thanks to his unemployed status, he finds that those whose doors were previously open to him now spurn him politely.
Then comes a fateful e-mail from De Wavre International, one of the top headhunting organisations in the world: 'Your profile may be of some interest to us: please get in touch.'
Carceville naturally responds. After a battery of tests and interviews, he is invited to participate in the ultimate test to win the endorsement of De Wavre for a senior executive position with one of the agency's exclusive clients.
Carceville and 15 fellow finalists are invited to a hotel on a remote island in a serene Alpine lake. It is the setting for what will become the final struggle, as the 15 pre-selected executives are pitted against each other in a bitter battle. Only two executives will survive.
Del Rieco, De Wavre's 'Big Brother', is the sinister manipulator who sets and enforces the contestants' agenda: nothing short of business warfare. The contestants are divided into three groups equipped with computers and the strategic intelligence required to battle with their competition.
The battle heats up, masks are removed and the weak are eliminated. Civility is lost as the talent war evolves into a deadly manhunt, the surviving contestants stalking each other, literally, to the death. Carceville's particular sparring partner is Chariac, a ruthless and quick-witted Parisian lawyer who will stop at nothing to win.
This yuppie Big Brother appears at first glance to be a thrilling take-off on the dark side of big corporate life. The faceless corporation that chews up and spits out senior executives while using headhunters to do its dirty work, manipulating executives who are the foot soldiers in an apocalyptic talent war, is the bete noire of the anti-globalisation crowd.
Whether Crespy, professor of sociology at Montpellier University, has given birth to the 'human resources thriller' (the phrase hardly trips off the tongue), as French critics have claimed, is more questionable.
Crespy attributes the search firm, De Wavre, with an absolute power over individuals' careers. 'If they recommend you, you're made; if they reject you, you're done for,' claims one hapless contestant. 'University degrees are fine when you're starting out in business, but later on there's only De Wavre, the ultimate executive search machine ...'
Certain individual headhunters may have a considerable hold over a specific industry sector at any one time, by virtue of their knowledge of the industry.
Indeed, in one or two cases they have wielded disproportionate influence over a majority of the boards of the major companies in any one country, with a stifling impact on the local corporate governance culture. However, it would be a sorry state if any one executive search firm were to develop De Wavre's hold on the market for senior executives.
Recent developments within the global executive search business would suggest that the reverse is taking place: the market is fragmenting rather than concentrating. Enjoy this human resources thriller for what it is: a fast-moving and insightful parody.