A comedy of errors, where fact and fiction merge

<i>Takeover</i> by Peter Waine and Mike Walker (Wiley, &pound;16.99)
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High finance has something in common with sex, and not just the thrills and spills: they're both awfully hard to portray well in fiction, and in both cases, writers are likely to get it spectacularly wrong if they are not hands-on players.

High finance has something in common with sex, and not just the thrills and spills: they're both awfully hard to portray well in fiction, and in both cases, writers are likely to get it spectacularly wrong if they are not hands-on players.

Taking that to its logical conclusion, novelists would be banned from writing about moon probes if they hadn't actually been on a mission. But at least the average space novelist would get his basic facts right, and might hesitate before appending a deadpan lecture to astronauts, rocket designers and mission controllers, advising them how to up their game.

It's a rum old book this, a fictitious account of a small hostile takeover, apparently intended to serve as a vehicle for instruction in the pitfalls and dos and don'ts of takeovers. The story mechanics are kept simple. Company A, led by a larger-than-life entrepreneur, has a go at Company B, a sleepy, old-fashioned family concern.

Storms rage in boardrooms, ritual insults are traded, bankers strut their wicked stuff, and the media hypes it up. Company B twists this way and that, but cannot escape the predator's unrelenting clutches. Yet there's a sting in the entrepreneur's tail: he has overpaid and will soon be ousted by the rest of his board. The blurb says the book is "an exhilarating view of how business really works", but it's fatally undermined by the authors' lack of grasp of the subject.

Knifing writers is nasty, and there's nothing worse than clever-dick, tee-hee, nitpicking reviews. In this case, though, it's awfully hard to be kind when the book is crammed to the gunwales with errors. The authors solemnly explain the importance of the Takeover Code: if they had bothered to read it properly, they'd have learnt the main way their besieged company tries to stave off defeat (instantly flogging a large division) isn't allowed.

They believe you can win a takeover battle by getting acceptances for 45 per cent of the voting stock, and that if you don't send your form in by the closing date you're too late to accept a successful offer. The company's sharp English banker suggests they consider Wall Street-style counter-measures, such as poison pills and shark repellents. The crotchety chairman rejects all such voodoo - just as well, since everything the banker describes wouldn't be permitted here.

At least the research is consistently sloppy. Fashionable Nobu restaurant does a Burnham Wood and moves from the Metropolitan Hotel to the Intercontinental. Japanese fish and designers make guest appearances in blissfully approximate spellings. Even Alfa Romeo isn't spelt right.

Mathematics are equally eccentric. The initial offer is 30 per cent above Company B's market price, yet on announcement its shares jump by less than 10 per cent (shurely shome mistake).

For all these bitches, if you can live with the comedy of errors, the story itself rattles along pleasantly enough. There are no sub-plots to speak of, the nearest being a genuflection to a dysfunctional family relationship and an office affair that doesn't get out of the starting blocks. There is one sleazy nocturnal encounter between the main protagonists which is vividly bewildering in the vein of a Terry Gilliam cartoon.

The boardroom scenes are quite amusing, and the self-seeking bankers are suitably unlovable, though the detail is wide of the mark. (If there was ever a time when investment bankers turned up to meet clients without first bothering to check their share price, it was decades ago. And in real life the virtuosity of bankers doesn't extend to selling businesses as fast as used cars. It usually takes months.)

The reproduction of miniversions of offer and defence documents lends a nice touch of verisimilitude. But it's a screaming pity that the authors didn't think to make any real use of the key moment in a bid - the tension down to the wire on the final closing date, seeing whether the bidder will get past the vital 50 per cent.

If you strip out the didactic pretensions, Takeover is no worse than many other financial thrillers. It's the bizarre concluding lecture to potential acquirors, advisers, etc that hoists the petard. Without that, the authors could simply plead ignorance or airily wave the Get-out-of-Jail-Free card of poetic licence. It's not that the lecture contains anything particularly daft. The tone is nicely avuncular, and the content wouldn't be out of place in an Institute of Directors pamphlet.

What grates is their sheer bloody cheek of sticking it in here, when they couldn't get their own material halfway right.

They have assembled a genuinely impressive crew of experienced business people to endorse the book. Some of those folk have been at the coalface, and must know the facts. It's perverse that the authors didn't ask one of them - or any competent corporate financier or lawyer - to look at a draft early on and knock it into shape. It's hard to see that a small dose of accuracy would have damaged the narrative.

As a result, this strange brew of novel and textbook peppers its own feet with gunshot and slides dangerously close to a spoof. Mind you, if it really was intended as one, the joke is on me.

The reviewer is author of'Black Cabs' (Simon & Schuster), and was a director of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell

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