Over Exposure, by Hugo Rifkind

Despatches from the front line of celebrity
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The Independent Culture

The original and best gossip columnist in modern fiction is Adam Fenwick-Symes, the troubled protagonist of Evelyn Waugh's social satire, Vile Bodies. He's brittle, brilliant and impossibly accident-prone, and shines a pertinent, if rather tragic light on the pre-war Society circuit.

In the 70-odd years since Waugh's second novel, Society has been replaced; we now have a celebrity "scene". Gossip is a growth industry: the grubby show-business hack now figures on every Fleet Street editorial team, and underpins London's champagne-fulled party circuit.

This is the setting for Hugo Rifkind's debut novel, Over Exposed, a semi-autobiographical trek through contemporary London's celebrity culture. Rifkind is supremely qualified for the task, since his day job is on the front line of diary journalism, editing a page in The Times called People. On Saturdays, he writes a satirical column, called My Week. Both have their moments.

Our hero Macaulay Lewis is, like Rifkind, of mixed Scottish and Jewish descent. He works as an endearingly incompetent gossip hack on a fictional Fleet Street broadsheet, The Gazette.

A detective story sparkles into action when Lewis attends a show-business event at which two priceless diamonds adorning the nipples of a reality TV star are stolen. The following night, a diamond necklace is pinched from a B-List model/actress/whatever. Both times, the crook leaves a calling card, signed "Fingers".

In the manner of a modern Robin Hood, Fingers becomes front-page news. Lewis, who appears to be on the verge of being fired by The Gazette, is told to catch the heroic celebrity thief in order to save his job. He makes occasional, pretty useless, efforts to do just this. The rest of his time is devoted to drinking and chasing skirt.

We are, in case you hadn't realised, in the realm of farce. In keeping with the genre, Rifkind writes in broad strokes. Lewis doesn't just oversleep: he wakes at mid-day with a screaming hangover and a brunette between his sheets. Other journalists aren't macho: they're foul-mouthed, drunken parodies of the bullying newsroom psycho.

Similarly, the party "scene" Rifkind portrays is a bastardised version of the real thing, inhabited by a variety of real and made-up celebrities, existing in a state of absolute pointlessness. Sub-plots take us Brixton, or Hampstead, or wherever bohemian twentysomethings are supposed to have filthy bedsits.

Highbrow readers may find this two-dimensional approach annoying. I don't. Rifkind has a cheeky sense of humour, and has successfully pulled together a fast-moving and entertaining little comic novel. Like all decent comedy, it's near the knuckle, too.

Some of Rifkind's colleagues may see unflattering reflections of themselves in the cast of Over Exposure. Others - not least Lachlan and James Murdoch, sons of Times owner Rupert - may bristle at Rifkind's choice of pantomime villain: Jensen Randall, a rapist, who happens to be the son of The Gazette's proprietor.

That, though, is for Rifkind to worry about. For the reader, he's knocked together a jaunty and entertaining debut novel. It may not trouble the shortlist of any of the glitzy awards whose parties he portrays, but it's a perfectly enjoyable read all the same.

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