Maxwell: The Outsider.
By Tom Bower.
Mandarin; 573pp; £4.99.
Review by Charles Darwent.
It was, depending on your point of view, either unfortunate or apposite that the skies over Robert Maxwell's adopted country should explode in fireworks just as reports of that erstwhile publisher's final paddle hit the evening papers. Being 5 November, they were, of course, celebrating the demise of an earlier schemer; but the world nonetheless appeared to be ghoulishly en fete at the Bouncing Czech's last unsuccessful flotation. The fireworks in Tom Bower's back garden that night were doubtless especially gleeful, but Bower's real pyrotechnic - an expanded version of his book, Maxwell: The Outside (subtitled The book that Maxwell tried to ban) - had to wait a brief five weeks before exploding on a breathless world.
Hyped by its publishers as a biographical Roman Candle, Mad Max II turns out, however, to be something of a damp squib. To be fair, this is at least in part because the book is a victim of its own original success. Two years ago, Tom Bower was a publishing hero, Salman Rushdie without the split infinitives. When, in spite of threats, Bower went ahead with publication of Maxwell I, its eponymous subject weighed in with all those low blows for which he was famed. Bower and his publisher were half-nelsoned with writs and injunctions; retail booksellers were leaned on so heavily that most - Blackwells and Hatchards were laudable exceptions - refused to stock the book at all. That it appeared, albeit in Maxwellised form, was a testament to Bower's authorial tenacity. Given, however, that dead men do not issue libel writs, Maxwell II loses this cachet. Remove the Maxwellian fatwah, and the whole thing looks faintly sordid. Reading Maxwell II, one is reminded of David Attenborough: vultures dining on a bloated corpse.
Nor are criticisms of the book merely based on squeamishness. The point about this new edition is the three final chapters, totalling 45,000 words, that have been added by Bower to the original. These purportedly contain both old material dropped from the first book under threat of death and new material relating to the late publisher's aquatic demise. In blurbspeak, the book promises "the truth behind Maxwell's extraordinary links with the Kremlin and Eastern Europe" and even "the sensational truth behind Robert Maxwell's death".
Back in the realm of mere fact, it delivers neither. There are, for example, references to "documents" proving Maxwell's links with the KGB, but nothing more substantial ever actually emerges than Bower's hazy suggestion that their "existence ... seems certain". That sources behind Bower's uncannily precise reconstruction of alleged conversations between the late publisher and a KGB agent (KGB: "We would like your assistance"; Maxwell: "With pleasure") remain undisclosed left this reader with eyebrows raised.
The sensational truth behind Robert Maxwell's death also turns out to be more guesttimation on Bower's part, the "truth" in question being that Maxwell, "while standing by the thin metal rail, possibly while urinating, suffered a heart attack, lost his balance and fell into the sea. As he struggled consciously or unconsciously for survival, his luxury craft unwittingly glided towards its rendezvous with his Gulfstream jet." Golly. Leaving aside the fact that publishers who struggle for survival can hardly be classed as unconscious, or that even the cleverest of craft can only ever glide unwittingly, there are only two ways in which Bower can possibly be more informed on the matter of Maxwell's last moments than the world at large. One is the possession of a medically qualified ouija board; the other, more sinister, answer is his presence aboard the Lady Ghislaine that fateful night. The world demands to know.
All of this is a shame, as Bower's courage in publishing the original biography, and his scrupulous attention to detail in it remains unquestioned. Among other good reasons for approaching this new Maxwell: The Outsider with a degree of cynicism, however, is the fact that its USP - immediacy - will rot as quickly as its protagonist. Even by the time this review is published, more will have come to light regarding Robert Maxwell's life and death, none of which will be contained in what is marketed as being the last word on the subject. A biography is one thing: a topical biography (by its very nature a cynical little creature) is quite another. Bower and his publishers might have done better to abide by the good minimalist principle that less is more.
Charles Darwent is a freelance journalist.