Playing to the gallery

Iain Duncan Smith may be fighting a last-ditch battle for the Tory party, but he's still found time to write a soon-to-be-published thriller, The Devil's Tune. DJ Taylor imagines the book's opening chapters
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It was frightfully hot on the beach. So hot that it might even have been described as exceedingly warm. Or even boiling. In the distance, over the low rim of the horizon, beyond the blue-green sea, the sun hung like a fried egg-yolk amid fluffy white clouds. Supine at the water's edge, his lithe but capacious body spread-eagled on the somewhat gritty sand, he could hear a dim yet insistent voice resounding in his ear...

"Now, Prime Minister, here in the wake of your unexpected 100-seat election victory, basking in the plaudits of your admiring party, your personal approval ratings at an all-time high, and your wife about to host her own chat show, may we enquire what you intend to do next?"

It was curious, dynamic and successful international art dealer John Grande reflected, as he sat up and drew a towel across the contours of his virile yet reassuring torso, how often he dreamed of being a politician. A seagull winged its lonely way above his head, emitting a cry like that of some scavenging bird, and he became aware of feet - expensively shod feet in burgundy snakeskin slingbacks from Ancram & Clarke - moving across the sand towards him.

Teresa, his glamorous PA, was famous for her shoes.

"John," she breathed, in a tone that had elderly patrons of Galleria Toria reaching for their chequebooks, "I hate to interrupt your leisure" - she cast a quizzical glance at the unfurled towel - "but your plane leaves in an hour, and I wouldn't want you to miss your... flight."

There was something about Teresa's smile that he couldn't quite fathom: enigmatic, puzzling, mysterious even. His predecessor, so sadly forced to resign from the company for unexplained "personal reasons", had noticed it too.

"Is everything ready?" he demanded in the frank, manly tones that had propelled him to the Everest-like summit of the international art world. " 'Policy Statement' is the most important show this gallery has staged in years."

"Sorry, John." Teresa was toying with her mobile. "You'll have to speak up a bit."

"I mean, have all those new Tintorettos been catalogued?"

"Sorry, John." Was that a pout of impatience, Grande wondered, or merely a late-afternoon shadow stealing across her Gioconda profile? "But that new girl Betsey's only been in once all last month, and in any case Oliver in Attributions doesn't like foreign art. Says he wouldn't let the stuff in the country if he had his way."

A sudden chill struck him. Above his head there were grey storm clouds massing in the sky like harbingers of rain. Again he watched her fingers play coyly across the surface of the mobile. "Who are you talking to, Teresa?"

"Just a friend. Let's face it, John, you can't have too many of them."

In the plane, as the immensity of Europe lay beneath him, like an exceptionally well-upholstered sofa, he mused pensively on the dynamic progress that had brought him to his current eminence - loved, feared, and, he suspected, a little envied. Eton ("a helpful presence in the cloakroom", according to his house tutor), Sandhurst ("a natural commander of men", his passing-out citation had read). The distinguished foreign university. "One day, my putto," Sir Norman de Tebbytte, twinkling historian of the Quattrocento, had assured him as he pinched his cheek, "all this will be yours." Even the Baroness Margarita, the gallery's legendary founder, had seemed to approve. And this was to be the day of his greatest triumph. Except for that niggling feeling of anxiety that rose within him like the waves falling on to that now far-off Sicilian beach...

"Excuse me," said the man next to him, "but I believe I'm sitting in your seat." As they rose to exchange places there was a curious detonation. Grande watched in wide-eyed horror as his fellow-traveller fell dead into a tray of surprisingly palatable boeuf bourguignon, with a poisoned dart protruding from his temple. It was almost, he reflected as the corpse was borne away, as if the missile was intended for himself. Shaken, but strangely stirred, he prepared himself for the descent to Heathrow and the hour of his destiny.

"Smith Square," he crisply instructed his faithful chauffeur Norris, as the limousine swooped to retrieve him from the clotted Heathrow tarmac. "Galleria Toria."

"Where guv? I didn't quite catch..."

Teresa, who had mysteriously made her own travel arrangements ("It will be more convenient," she had cooed), was there to meet him on the gallery steps. Within, behind the aquarium-like windows, he could see his trusty underlings, Letwin and Willetts, polishing the frames of the principal exhibits. But Teresa's soft, sweet smile had gone. In its place was an icy frown.

"Bad news, John. The critics don't like it. The man from The Burlington Magazine's already left. 'A series of banal and ill-conceived populist gestures' were his exact words. Oh, and Mr Wheeler would like a word." As she spoke a neatly dressed but sinister-looking figure in an overcoat and dark glasses detached itself from the throng and moved purposefully towards him. "Now look John, I've been a patron of this gallery since the early days. 'Falklands Task Force'. 'On Your Bike'. 'Cheering Citizens Buy Shares In British Gas'. Now they was pickchers. Stuff you could hang on your wall. But these things" - he waved a dismissive hand - "there's no market for them."

"I strongly disagree, Mr Wheeler. What about 'Asylum Seeker', over there, that Mr Letwin's just unveiled?"

"Don't like the colour values. And where's the perspective? No, the Blair gallery's got you fair beat. Did you see 'National Identity Card' they had on display last month? And even 'Foundation Hospital' went down OK with most of the critics, though I don't care for it myself."

A sickening feeling of dread welling up within him, Grande watched as his PA flitted dexterously past him, whispering once more into her mobile. Was it his imagination or had she muttered the words, "Ten more signatures."

"Me and Mr Majedski, John, we gave you two years to turn this place round. Get the West End trade in here again. Have the newspapers writing us up and that. Bit of class we thought you was. But it hasn't worked out, has it?

"You'll find your cards on the table upstairs. That Mr Davis will be filling in until we can start the recruitment process."

Grande found himself speaking through clenched teeth. The words seemed to stick in his mouth like pieces of long-chewed bubblegum. In the distance he could see Davis, currently the gallery's "meeter and greeter" obsequiously doffing his cap to the baroness as she stalked majestically into the room.

"But don't you realise that would finish the gallery off? Destroy all the work that everyone's put in. Simply hand things over to the opposition?"

"You mustn't take it so hard, John. Come on now, I'm sure there's dozens of things you'd rather be doing that's more suited to your talents."

Suddenly - and the sensation was oddly comforting, as seductive as Teresa's fluting voice - Grande felt that he was back on the Italian beach, the hot sand oozing between his toes, the voice whispering all too seductively in his ear.

"Actually," he said, "I'm thinking of going into politics."

Iain Duncan Smith's 'The Devil's Tune' is published by Robson Books next month

The great tradition: other political novelists

Among the Victorians, the sometime Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton stand out. Disraeli's Sybil: Or The Two Nations caused a sensation with its account of the wretched conditions of the working classes. Bulwer-Lytton is best known for The Last Days of Pompeii, whose characters plot and lust for passion, oblivious to their fate. The marvellous late-Victorian Tory MP Arthur Brookfield wrote Simiocracy (1884), perhaps the most politically incorrect fable of all time, in which the Liberal Party enfranchises orang-utans and imports millions from Africa to keep itself in power.

Modern examples include the Labour MP Maurice Edelman (eg, Disraeli in Love - darkly handsome, politically ambitious novelist falls in love with married woman); Douglas Hurd's political thrillers; and Ann Widdecombe's unfashionable paean to faith and duty, The Clematis Tree. Then, of course, there's Edwina Currie, whose novel A Parliamentary Affair (the irony!) was runner-up for The Literary Review's Bad Sex prize, with such gems as "devouring his Honourable Member" and "special secret world of escape and abandon and exultation and longing". In the late 1970s, just after he had helped to filibuster the original Public Lending Right Bill, the Tory MP Iain Sproat sent a copy of his newly penned work to Chatto & Windus. The publisher returned it with the words: "Even if your name was Marcel Proust, we would not publish this."