Suppose you were asked to write, in top gear and for a handsome fee, an undercover biography of a man you have admired all your life. Your subject is Hamish Melville, a legendary humanitarian hero, a reclusive David Attenborough-cum-Gandhi moving about the world at speed righting wrongs and eschewing personal publicity. You hit lucky: you come upon the old man deep in rural India, organising an effective protest against a mining conglomerate bent on widespread local destruction. After several adventures, during which you get the chance to demonstrate your genuine sympathy for Melville, he agrees to help with your project. The book is written and delivered on time: you await the publisher's generous payment, which you seriously need.
But it doesn't arrive. Your book, beautifully crafted as it is, fails to please the publisher. It is too laudatory. He wants you to discover flaws in the man, to dish the dirt. You can't find any, so he finds it for you. But the evidence is unconvincing. What are you to do?
This is the story told in Michael Palin's well-researched, crisply written and beguiling second novel. Its idealistic journalist hero, Keith Mabbut, is 56. His biggest achievement to date is having been presented with a British Gas award; his marriage is on the skids and he's pretty low. He has become a doomy hack, and he is longing to write something valuable and important when his agent, Silla, introduces him to Urgent Books, and their sleek and slithery publisher Ken Latham. This looks like Keith's big moment.
And so it proves to be, against mighty odds. The story, never slow, gathers pace towards a splendidly triumphant, unexpected ending. And Keith is an appealing, credible chap. A bewildered innocent at first, ready to help his daughter's Iranian boyfriend protect his family from disaster, and making every effort to understand and believe the best of everybody, he is forced, ultimately, to confront the truth – about Melville, Silla, Latham, the boyfriend and, most of all, himself.
Alex Jennings is the perfect reader, giving a rough old Scottish twang to Melville, a 40-a-day rasp to Silla, several distinct voices to the Indians who help Keith find Melville, and sharply defined identities to all the devils and darlings Keith encounters in his research. He is a cast of thousands.