Magazine article The Spectator

Heads You Win

Magazine article The Spectator

Heads You Win

Article excerpt

Morality and mortality HEADS YOU WIN by Ferdinand Mount Chatto, £16.99, pp.290, ISBN 0701177519 £14.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

At the start of this sixth and final volume of Ferdinand Mount's novel sequence A Chronicle of Modern Twilight, the narrator Aldous (Gus) Cotton is about to take premature retirement from the Civil Service, having found, to his chagrin, that he has been passed over for the promotion that he thought to be his due. His raffish old comrade in asthma Joe Follows, a financier with a 'colourful' past - already met in the second volume, Of Love and Asthma - then persuades him to join in the flotation of a business called Heads You Win. This, at first dedicated merely to headhunting, soon extends to the hectic takeover of dicy concerns on either side of the Atlantic.

Having suffered a stroke, it is possible that Joe will not survive for long. Of the remaining two members of the gang, one, Keith Trull, is a former best-selling scinovelist, just released from prison after a conviction for drug smuggling. The other is Jade Treviso, a supremely seductive young woman recovering from alcoholism. The fact that these four have all been able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again, is precisely what recommends them both to prospective employers and to people desperately looking for jobs after having been sacked or made redundant.

Since the business starts up at the height of the dot.com boom, it first enjoys phenomenal success. But then, at an ever-accelerating pace, it begins to slide into bankruptcy. This is in large part due to the involvement of a dishonest, ruthless and repeatedly disgraced American tycoon, Waldo R. ('Dodo) Wilmot - already encountered in the previous volume Fairness, in which he turns up in Africa pretending to be prospecting for precious stones, while in fact mining beryllium to be sold illegally for nuclear weapons.

One of the major themes of the novel is betrayal. 'Dodo' appears to be a benevolent godfather to the Four Musketeers (as Joe thinks of them) but in fact is bent on making a profit out of their destruction. Keith, the former best-selling novelist, has no qualms about cheating his partners. On a personal level, Joe, besotted with Jade, in effect abandons the dying wife whom he has left behind in Ireland. Jade is carrying on a surreptitious affair with a fashionable photographer. Meanwhile neglect has driven Gus's wife, a historical biographer, into the arms of an unprepossessing librarian who has been helping her with research. …

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