Atlantic £25 (448pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Splendour and Squalor, By Marcus Scriven

Marcus Scriven's first book is subtitled "the disgrace and disintegration of three aristocratic dynasties". The four black sheep who brought shame upon their once noble families are, in order of appearance, Edward FitzGerald, seventh Duke of Leinster, who squandered an inheritance estimated at £400 million, and ended his days as plain Mr FitzGerald in a Pimlico bedsit, where he killed himself in March 1976. Victor Frederick Cochrane Hervey, sixth Marquess of Bristol, was a jewel thief, arms dealer and fraudster who managed to get himself declared bankrupt while still in his twenties.

Angus Charles Drogo Montagu, twelfth Duke of Manchester, was an embezzler whose weight rose to 21 stone due to excessive eating and drinking, while Frederick William John Augustus Hervey, seventh Marquess of Bristol and son of the wretched Victor, was known to friends and toadies as John; his craving for expensive rent boys, cocaine, heroin and whatever alcohol was at hand caused him to become HIV positive and die in his forties.

Each of these unlovely additions to the human race was in possession of the dubious quality called charm. Women fell for it, along with financiers, investment brokers and anyone else whose services could prove useful. They were unscrupulous charmers, this Mephistophelean quartet, as Scriven's densely researched narrative makes horribly and sometimes painfully clear. Splendour and Squalor does not have an index. This is an unfortunate omission in view of the supporting cast of conmen, gangsters, loan sharks, minor royalty, drug dealers, fortune hunters, dodgy peers of the realm, wives both nice and nasty and general riff-raff.

Edward FitzGerald, the addictive gambler with a talent for vanishing whenever trouble, marital or financial, loomed on his horizon, was married four times. The first liaison was with May Etheridge, a chorus girl whose mother lived in Brixton and father had been a travelling salesman. Edward's relatives, in particular his aunt Cynthia, were shocked and ashamed. He showered family jewels on his young bride, and treated her callously thereafter, preferring the company of a chimpanzee he had bought for £50.

Some years later, the profligate was rescued from certain ruin by Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley, a former Conservative MP described as either a "charming, rich parvenu" or an "avaricious money-lender". Mallaby-Deeley promised to pay off all Edward's debts, amounting to £67,500, and give him an annual allowance of £1,000 for life in exchange for the income from the estates entailed with the dukedom, as well as the use of his houses in Ireland when Lord Edward succeeded to the title. The deal kept his creditors quiet and allowed him to live for a time in comparative tranquillity. But cards and horses and two more wives led him to money-lenders and, as a consequence, to wandering off into obscurity until things improved.

The impossibly naive and self-centred FitzGerald seems almost attractive compared to Victor Hervey, who took up residence in Wormwood Scrubs in July 1939 before being removed to Camp Hill prison on the outbreak of war. Victor, an inveterate fantasist and liar, rarely spoke about his incarceration. In the 1950s, he was supplying arms to the Batista regime in Cuba, and subsequently held directorships in a series of shady companies.

After his second marriage ended in divorce, Victor proposed to the future biographer Selina Hastings, whom he had employed to look after his ten-year-old son John. Victor was invited to lunch at her parents' Albany apartment. He was seriously drunk on arrival and proceeded to become virtually comatose as. To say that Lord and Lady Huntingdon regarded him as an unsuitable prospect is to put it very mildly. In his last years, plagued by osteomyelitis, Victor's behaviour became ever more violent and unpredictable, especially to John, whose wedding he refused to attend, placing an advertisement in the Times to that effect.

The corpulent Angus Montagu ended up in a flat in Bedford, not far from his stately home, Kimbolton. It was there that he had a heart attack in July 2002. The ambulance team could not carry him down the spiral staircase leading to the front entrance. He was lifted out of the building by crane, courtesy of the local fire brigade. He died in Bedford Hospital that night.

The twelfth Duke of Manchester had led an extraordinary life, working as a car salesman, a crocodile hunter, a cattle-train driver and a Hollywood stuntman. He had spent time in prison in Virginia following an investigation into his financial dealings by the FBI. He had four wives, but his closest relationship was with Kerry Cheeseman, a tart with a heart of brass who had run a business named Aristocats which supplied call-girls to toffs.

Although he liked to remind people they were in the presence of a duke, he sounded more like a navvy - indeed, his best friends were invariably low, in every sense of the word. He entertained lavishly, paid many visits to Kenya, and got mixed up with crooks who were infinitely more astute than him. An ex-pupil of Gordonstoun, Angus could barely read and write. He left debts of £70,000, this unholy fool.

John Hervey had a miserable childhood. He could never please his father, who made his contempt for his firstborn obvious. As Earl Jermyn he lived a raffish existence, inviting pretty young men, including Rupert Everett, to share his four-poster bed with the family coronet above it. His low-life companions were of the posh variety, the nastiest being Nick (Nick-Knack) Somerville, a procurer and full-time toady.

John drove a succession of expensive cars recklessly and piloted a helicopter, often when drunk or stoned or both. According to Scriven, he was the most charming of these charmers, especially when he wanted some action beneath the coronet. His awfulness would have intrigued the Evelyn Waugh of Vile Bodies, but Scriven isn't tempted to satirise what is preposterous enough already. John's brief marriage was disastrous, his wife refusing to bear a child until he kicked his drug habit. He tried to, but didn't succeed. The twinks, or rent boys, must have been delighted when he approached them - one, a stripper, charged £4,000 a night.

The family seat Ickworth, then partly owned by the National Trust, was the setting for drug orgies and deranged shoots, with John firing a gun in the air on days when people paid to see the famous Rotunda. He would scream at the "fucking peasants" as he did so.

This interesting book is too long. Scriven's subjects are essentially trivial men, self-regarding, uneducated. There are pages so crammed with information the reader has to slow down to absorb it. Footnotes, rather than the dozens of endnotes, would have been welcome. Splendour and Squalor makes salutary reading in these cash-strapped times, although the splendour is less in evidence than incessant squalor.

Paul Bailey's 'Uncle Rudolf' is published by Fourth Estate

High and low life: infamous Herveys

Rakish reputations have marked the progress of the Hervey family of Ickworth, Suffolk, since Elizabethan times, when Francis Hervey caroused with the Earl of Essex. In the early 18th-century, the ambivalence of the first Earl of Bristol's son prompted Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to define three types of human: men, women and Herveys. Admiral Augustus won renown for escapades at sea and in the bedroom, while Frederick the "earl-bishop" raced horses and built the Rotunda.

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