Paperbacks: The Empress of Ireland

Rupert Hart-Davis

Empire Adrift

Hawkwood

StyleCity: London

The Late-Night News

Mantrapped

Though his 30 films are now known only by buffs, director Desmond Brian Hurst will live on in this hilarious portrait. Christopher Robbins was scriptwriter on Hurst's doubtful final project, Darkness Before Dawn, concerning "events leading up to the birth of Christ". This association plunged him into the far-from-pious life of the boisterous director ("I'm trisexual. The Army, the Navy and the Household Cavalry") and his friends, both posh and seedy, in Mayfair's demi-monde. Hurst was a fantasist and sponger (Robbins had to repay £80 borrowed from the director's milkman) but also an irresistible charmer. Robbins finds himself paying off a blackmailer of Michael Redgrave. He meets Gerald Hamilton (Isherwood's Mr Norris) and Moura Budberg, mistress of Gorky and Wells, who knew Rasputin: "a dirty, smelly peasant". There are a host of stories, ranging from the salacious Betty Hutton and prudish J Arthur Rank to Noel Coward in Tangiers. Musing on his craft, Coward once announced: "There must be a strong, last act curtain." Adoring actor at his feet: "Muslin's nice". Hurst's adventures included the hell of Gallipoli as well as high life in Hollywood. Though his religious epic was never made, he has inspired a small masterpiece. CH

Rupert Hart-Davis, by Philip Ziegler (PIMLICO £12.99 (332pp))

As befits one of the last "gentleman publishers", this is a handsomely-produced and judiciously written volume. Glamorous in youth (hard to imagine many of today's male publishers pursued by two top actresses, as Hart-Davis was by Celia Johnson and Peggy Ashcroft), he emerges as an exemplary editor, generous with time and money and dedicated to high standards. Though his private life in his later years was not exactly scintillating - his favourite leisure pursuit was a good jigsaw - his integrity in an era of corporate publishing makes for an absorbing story. CH

Empire Adrift, by Patrick Wilcken (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (306pp))

Though most 19th-century monarchs never set foot in the distant colonies that financed them, there was one striking exception. Besieged by Napoleon, the entire Portuguese court fled for Brazil in 1807. With the corpulent prince regent Dom Joao at their head, some 10,000 aristocrats and servants sailed in chaos for Rio de Janeiro. This bizarre 13-year exodus, initiated by Britain, is brought vividly to life by Wilcken. His focus ranges from the despotic princess regent Carlotta, who made all passers-by drop to their knees when her carriage passed (only the US ambassador refused) to Rio's sewage slaves, known as "Tigers" for the urine-bleached stripes on their backs. . CH

Hawkwood, by Frances Stonor Saunders (FABER £8.99 (366pp))

Scary name, scary guy. Born in 1320, Sir John Hawkwood started out as an Essex thug, before becoming "the most audacious mercenary of them all". Step by step, his scheme was "quite simply to hold Italy to ransom". Maintaining a cracking pace, Saunders vividly illuminates medieval life and, more particularly, death. The half-million arrows shot at Crecy could each produce wounds six inches deep. Despite his success as a warlord - Hawkwood was one of the first Englishmen "to discover the pleasure of owning property in Tuscany" - he ended up pursued for debt. The bankers always win. CH

StyleCity: London, by Phyllis Richardson THAMES & HUDSON £14.95 (192pp))

In view of the city's recent traumas, it is good to be reminded that London remains an irresistible magnet for the style conscious. The new edition of this zippy guide covers the capital from top ("Philip Treacy's approach to millinery is that of a sculptor") to toe ("Manolo Blahnik's displays raise shoes to the level of art"). Several entries, however, run counter to the guide's so-cool-it-hurts agenda. It is hard to think of anywhere less cutting-edge than Rules Restaurant (est. 1798) or the grime-encrusted dungeon of Gordon's Wine Bar on Villiers Street. CH

The Late-Night News, by Petros Markaris (VINTAGE £6.99 (295pp))

It took a while for Athenian cop Inspector Haritos to reach us, but raise a glass of ouzo now he's here. A gridlocked winter Athens is the far-from-mythical setting for linked tales of murder at the top (the TV elite) and toe (Albanian migrants) of new Greek society. Strongly written, slyly plotted, spiced with drolly satirical sidelights - Markaris is a crime writer to cheer and cherish. BT

Mantrapped, by Fay Weldon (HARPERPERENNIAL £7.99 (268pp))

After her memoir Auto da Fay, our favourite she-devil looks back again in passion and some anger on a trouble-making life. This time, she plays havoc with literary forms, mingling a (true?) story of marriage and mayhem in Primrose Hill with a (fictional?) yarn about characters who serve as present-day ghosts or negatives of Fay and family. A mischievous, genre-bending romp through a supposedly liberated era when, still, "man proposed, and man disposed". BT

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