Making a bit of a hash of things

Mr Nice by Howard Marks Secker, pounds 16.99; Howard Marks had 43 aliases, smoked 20 joints a day, and shifted 100 tons of cannabis in his time. Duncan Fallowell finds an old-fashioned criminal beneath the disguises
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Here is a taste of the text, chosen because it is what most of the book is like. "Flash put me through. Ernie had been worried and was glad I called. There was more money for me to pick up in Hong Kong. Bill was still at the Mandarin. He had $250,000 ready for me. Richard Shurman's son Steve was in the Peninsula Hotel. He was holding about $150,000. Bruce Aitken was holding about the same amount in his office in Edinburgh Towers. Steve had the full..." etc.

At first this autobiography is riveting for the breathless candour with which Mr Marks exposes the mechanics of dope dealing: who was doing what with whom. MI6, the CIA, the DEA, the IRA, the Mafia, numerous friends, P.J. Proby and the late Lord Moynihan all fly past at breakneck speed. Money splatters everywhere.

Occasionally something unusual bobs up - there is a fascinating paragraph, for example, on how to smell-proof hashish for transit. And there are a number of wonderful moments. A particularly satisfying one - because it is a widespread fantasy - takes place as Mr and Mrs Marks are travelling home via Switzerland during one of their less well-off periods. They are sitting outside a cafe in some resort when Mrs Marks suddenly points across the square to a bank and exclaims "Howard, I'm sure I opened an account there." Half an hour later she emerges with pounds 20,000.

The book is certainly the fruit of much experience and is not without humour, intelligence ("One of the keys to business success is to pretend to be doing what one ultimately wants to do") and generosity (he is especially kind to underdogs and minorities). But as hundreds of pages turn over in a blur of names, hotels, airports, bars and suitcases of cash, like an endless global rock tour from the secretary's point of view, it begins to seem that a life of non-stop adventure becomes meaningless even more rapidly than other forms of existence. And, in a technical sense, the book is curiously at odds with itself: an air of veracity is well established by the welter of specific information, yet undermined by reams of embarrassing dialogue.

Then on page 346, Howard answers the phone and we read: "Tom and I had devised a code. If he began his telephone conversation with the words 'how things are', then I should infer that extreme danger was imminent. I went over his conversation in my mind. I couldn't remember how he'd started."

At which point one must ask oneself - if his memory fails over a few seconds, how on earth can he recall these extraordinarily labyrinthine transactions between London, Hong Kong, Manila, Karachi and Bangkok over a period of 20 years? Criminals do not keep meticulous diaries of their movements, and as for cannabis, whatever it might do for the spirit, it does appalling things to the memory (Marks usually smoked 20 joints a day). Nowhere are we told where all this very precise material is coming from.

If Mr Nice were on television it could be called a "drama documentary", a form which allows many liberties. And obviously the dialogue is contrived. Which still leaves a staggering amount of circumstantial detail unaccounted for. So I rang an ex-dealer and asked his opinion and he said that, firstly, I should remember that Howard's forte was the confidence trick. I said that's true of all professional criminals and he said yes but Howard was particularly strong on plausibility and this had enabled him to slip out of many tight corners. Secondly, said my friend, major dope dealers are generally known to the authorities - the task is to secure a conviction. So many of Howard's movements will have been logged, especially by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the USA - where the Freedom of Information Act allows access.

To which I must make an important addition: with this book we are in a conspiratorial society, that is, in the realm of flexi-truth, and in such societies nobody knows what's really going on most of the time, and very often the more you investigate, the less certain you become (try living in Russia for a month to discover the truth of this). In other words, Mr Marks's version is as true as anyone else's.

Another matter which rankled was the plentiful naming of names. Hundreds of them. How many did he change? Of the few known to me personally, none was contacted for a waiver. When, after jumping through the hoops of 43 aliases, Marks underwent the final big bust, he was extradited to the USA and imprisoned for seven years. The authorities were going for 40 and offered a plea bargain. Marks refused, saying he was no snitch. But is not the whole book a betrayal of this confidential subculture? For example, he describes in detail his involvement with the so-called IRA dope dealer, Jim McCann and writes in exasperation: "Fucking McCann. He still hasn't got a dope conviction." For Marks, the book is not only a commercial opportunity but also part of a cleaning and rebirth, but for his many colleagues it could well be an unwelcome exhumation.

Is he nice? He says he never dealt anything harder than cannabis and this is his social defence. Beginning with the help of Pakistani, Lebanese and Afghan diplomats, bringing hashish to their embassies in Europe, Marks was instrumental in smuggling about 100 tons of the stuff by the end of his career. He discovered in prison that, compared to the achievements of some there, this was a modest total. The modern-day hero is an outlaw - also sexually promiscuous and often very violent. Despite having been to Balliol College, Oxford, Marks scores well only in the first of these, so there is something old-fashioned about his career too, a relic from an era when you could go a long way by just being loose and friendly.

Presumably dope dealing, like everything else, has become a lot more tight-fisted since then. The book is illustrated mostly with photographs of the wife and kids and fellow- criminals in Terre Haute Penitentiary - very Sicilian that.