Set during the final months of John Major's government, this novel kicks off with a (non-fictional) quote from Simon Jenkins in The Times, from 4 January 1997: "The Internet is one more electronic craze that market forces will sooner or later put in its proper context."
Jenkins compares web fanatics with Esperantists and radio hams. "The Internet will strut its hour upon the stage and then take its place in the ranks of lesser media."
The Spoiler, then, is a tale of cruel hindsight as well as a wonderfully entertaining comedy of manners about the dying days of Fleet Street and the cult of celebrity. It is the first novel by Annalena McAfee, a journalist with three decades' experience. It's tempting, then, to read this as a roman-à-clef. But there's no need: The Spoiler creates a believable world all of its own.
Tamara Sim, an ambitious but idiotic reporter in her twenties, has been given the assignment of her life. She is to interview the octogenarian Honor Tait, a veteran war correspondent, contemporary of Martha Gellhorn, and renowned battleaxe. The stakes are high. Honor is running low on funds and needs her new book to sell. She also knows that she is old and tired: this interview could be her last. For Tamara, it's a chance at the big time.
Tamara is a great comic character in the tradition of Bridget Jones: delusional but sympathetic. She works part-time as a sub-editor on Psst!, the Saturday TV-listings mag of The Monitor, a semi-respectable broadsheet. The Honor Tait story is a surprise commission: a chance to get her writing into the hallowed pages of The Monitor's prestigious glossy supplement, S*nday. The trouble is, Tamara is more at home with the Celebrity Cellulite List. When the editor tips her off that Honor Tait pays for sex with younger men and is known as "the Messalina of Maida Vale", she thinks to herself: "Wasn't that the Italian resort where they held last year's Monitor management junket?" The clutter of Tamara's confused mind is one of the novel's great charms.
McAfee is even-handed, however. The great Honor Tait is obviously an immense, authentic talent and a woman of integrity and poise, everything Tamara – forged expenses claims spilling out of her pockets – is not. But which of them is the bigger fool? Tait, too, can also be a self-absorbed buffoon. She convenes a monthly salon for attractive young men who top up her martini glass and regale her with witty theatre reviews. Behind closed doors, she is haunted by her memories: Buchenwald, Nuremberg, Korea, Vietnam. She is also hiding a secret, but she's damned if she's telling Tamara Sim about that.
The title provides the suspense. Will Tamara pull off the story, with or without her subject's co-operation, or will someone get there before her? There is a priceless supporting cast: the jealous secretary, the philandering boss, the obsequious publisher, the tyrant editor and, best of all, Tamara's upstart rival, Tania, who is convinced – unlike everyone else – of the exciting possibilities of this ridiculous Internet thingy.
The Spoiler is a clever, literary romp with flashes of Nancy Mitford and Helen Fielding. The narrative flits effortlessly between registers, contrasting the weighty journalism of record as pioneered by Tait with the tabloid-speak that has infused what is left of Tamara's brain. In the tradition of the best comic novels that lampoon journalism, it's a darkly, deliciously witty read.