Paperback reviews: The Great Tax Robbery, Be Careful What You Wish For, The Fortune Hunter, The Quick, Stage Blood

Luxembourg: Which was revealed last week as being a hub for tax avoidance on a huge scale

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The Independent Culture

The Great Tax Robbery by Richard Brooks (One World £9.99)

Revelations last week that Luxembourg is a hub for tax avoidance on an unprecedented scale will come as no surprise to anyone who has read the investigative journalist Richard Brooks’s excellent study of the subject, The Great Tax Robbery. Brooks devotes a whole chapter of this book to exposing how Luxembourg’s government allows multinational companies, such as Vodafone, to turn a nominal corporation tax rate of 29 per cent into a mere 1 per cent rate using an array of arcane methods. The UK is one of those countries to lose out on its rightful share of these businesses’ profits.

The shabby situation in the Grand Duchy is just one example of how the global “tax avoidance industry” enables companies to find legal loopholes in order to shield billions from the British tax system, which too often does nothing but whistle and look the other way.

The typical method is to break up a company into small parts, to ensure that the bulk of its profits arise in a country with more favourable tax laws. If that sounds boring and complicated, well, that’s the point. Such firms rely on the fact that those in power will be put off by the complexity of the arrangements, and give up trying to follow the money. We must be grateful to Brooks, then, for his patient work here in parsing these schemes and his eloquent arguments in favour of greater transparency.

Brooks is particularly good at showing why we should be angered by all of this: he demonstrates how one hedge fund’s tax avoidance over four years in the 2000s cost the government £574m – enough to pay for four major hospitals. It’s mystifying that such tax avoiders are given an easy ride at a time when legitimate benefits-claimants are being demonised as scroungers. Let’s hope that this fine book helps redress the balance.

****

Be Careful What You Wish For by Jeffrey Archer (Pan £7.99)

Be Careful What You Wish For, the latest novel in Jeffrey Archer’s “Clifton Chronicles” series, catches up with the eponymous family in the 1950s. Harry and Emma Clifton tend to their son after an attempt on his life – they suspect the gangster Don Pedro Martinez, whose villainy the Cliftons exposed in a previous volume – and try to secure their majority shareholding of the lucrative Barrington Shipping Company.

Archer knows how to keep readers entertained – you don’t sell 250 million books by accident – but even he struggles to hold our attention here. At one point, Archer desperately tries to liven up yet another scene of boardroom exposition by deploying a metaphoric bombardment: “If Fisher felt this barbed arrow had been aimed at him, it failed to hit the target”; “Ross had tossed a hand grenade into the middle of the boardroom”. Such writing made me wonder whether Lord Jeff and Dan Brown ever get together to discuss the finer points of prose style, before heading off to put in rival bids on another Picasso.

**

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin (Headline Review £7.99)

The year is 1875, and Elisabeth (“Sisi”), the famously beautiful Empress of Austria, has arrived in England on a hunting trip. Rakish horseman Bay Middleton is appointed to be her guide and do his best to “further the cause of Anglo-Austrian friendship”. Bay goes rather beyond the call of duty – he and the Empress are soon caught up in a passionate affair – which isn’t good news for his fiancée, Charlotte, a spirited young heiress. Despite its steamy subject matter (more or less a true story), Goodwin’s second novel is disappointingly buttoned-up. But there’s some nice use of historical detail  and Bay and Charlotte indulge in some snappy repartee.

***

The Quick by Lauren Owen (Vintage £7.99)

Lauren Owen’s impressive debut novel begins in the manner of a somewhat quaint 19th-century melodrama. Orphaned siblings James and Charlotte grow up in a mouldering manor house in the Yorkshire countryside in the late 1890s; James later studies at Oxford before heading down to London to pursue a literary career. But after the first 100 pages the novel becomes something startlingly different: a rambunctious Gothic romp. James and Charlotte become caught up in a battle for supremacy between a genteel vampiric sect and their down-at-heel rivals in the East End. It’s all deliciously creepy, and the richly textured depiction of Victorian London is impressively done. The conclusion has you thirsting for more.

****

Stage Blood by Michael Blakemore (Faber & Faber £9.99)

In this hugely enjoyable memoir, Michael Blakemore revisits his time as associate director at the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier in the early 1970s. Blakemore helmed a number of landmark productions, but left after falling out with Peter Hall, who took over as director in 1973. Blakemore is clearly still irked by Hall, and his account of the dispute here is a bit unseemly. But this book is for the most part a delight; I loved the gossipy accounts of the characters who passed through the National. At one point an eccentric Spanish director, during the dress rehearsal, demanded the actors remove all their clothes: “A much distressed Jim Dale refused, but Anthony Hopkins coolly obliged …”

****

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