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Books: A cold fish out of water

Roger Clarke on the posh conman who fooled himself
Roll the Dice by Darius Guppy, Blake Publishing, pounds 15.99

Deluded; arrogant; toff. Such adjectives have become surgically implanted in the name Guppy by the tender ministrations of the tabloid press, ever since the story of Darius's spoof robbery hit the headlines in 1990. Previous generations had known the name as the genus of a ferociously sexual tropical fish, and for the exploits of the amazingly fat Victorian medium of the Guppy tribe, who defied gravity to levitate around the rooms of Dickensian London.

The grotesque medium is not mentioned by Guppy in his long list of illustrious ancestors, which includes medieval clerics, tycoons from the industrial revolution and bushy-bearded Islamic scholars. Gupa, we learn, means "bright in battle", from a Saxon word. It is certainly a swashbuckling monicker, which the young Darius took to heart from his earliest days: for example, at the age of 11, he ruthlessly harangued people to buy Union Jack stickers on the Kings Road, with all the air of a military operation.

He dreamed of martial glory, of winning, of getting rich. "Boldness and cheek were essential ingredients for success," he decided. Guppy felt trapped by the modern age and saw money was the only way of getting outside of it.

Like many people of his background, he knew that many of the super-rich were only super-rich through bending the rules. But bending the rules also meant not getting caught - an important lesson from his schooldays.

Never a good judge of people, he put his trust in a petty criminal Peter Risdon, who choreographed the robbery of pounds 1.8 million worth of gems from his New York hotel. Later Risdon developed a grudge against his toff employer and, picked up by the police on a separate matter, decided to shop Guppy in exchange for leniency.

There can be little doubt the police loathed Guppy from the start, and that he encouraged them to loathe him. From the outset he started getting routine harassment from them, and papers and photographs confiscated from his house during searches were sold to newspapers from police sources.

Unfortunately for Guppy, most people aren't much interested in his tales against the police (if you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas - as he discovered with Risdon). The means justify the ends: a popular moral ethic which, like much popular moral ethics, has little to do with law.

His friends are as puzzled by this book as his enemies, and Guppy has the fatal talent of being more dangerous to his friends than his enemies - a curious feature in a man so preoccupied with loyalty. Roll the Dice is replete with mawkish sentimentality, self-obsession and deceit. Guppy has some talent as a writer (his early poems were praised by Christopher Logue) yet he has allowed his mercenary instincts to monster his artistic ones.

By co-writing the book with a tabloid journalist, he has produced a horrific hybrid. His faults are glaringly magnified by the dumb journalese, his more iconic and unusual qualities entirely dwarfed by the book's money- garnering glee. Having fought with the press for so long, Guppy has become one of their creatures; and he doesn't even realise it.