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Maxwell vs Murdoch - the untold story

Stop Press: Archer writes witty book! The Fourth Estate by Jeffrey Archer, HarperCollins, pounds 16.99
Like some two-headed mutant offspring of Citizen Kane, Jeffrey Archer's new novel offers a thinly disguised account of the lives of Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch, here called Richard Armstrong and Keith Townsend. Armstrong, born Lubji Hoch, is a Czech Jew who escapes to Britain in wartime. Later serving in the British army of occupation, he swindles himself the rights to a German scientific publisher's list, underpaying the royalties until he amasses enough cash to start taking over newspapers. He is a gourmand and a ferocious litigant. (One of Maxwell's sons has attempted to ban the book and failed.)

Townsend is an Oxford-educated Australian who inherits and vastly expands his family's newspaper business. He is more a gambler than a crook, though at school he does pinch some of the cricket pavilion fund to bet on a horse, in a comic foreshadowing of the pension-fund theft that will eventually cause Armstrong's ruin.

There is a rumour in book circles that Archer's manuscripts, as delivered to his publishers, are simply awful, and that the editors should take credit for the finished product. On the evidence of The Fourth Estate, this is untrue. In a properly edited text, we would not be told that Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, or that the Allies landed in Normandy on 5 June 1944, which can't be a simple misprint because the previous day is given as 4 June. And since the editors don't seem to have done any work, Archer must be held responsible for the novel's merits as well as its faults. So we can thank him for such observations as: "it was still a court-martial offence for a British officer to have an overdraft.''

For the same reason, where any nicely turned sentences occur, we should put them down to authorial, not editorial talent. For example: "Two decisions were made when Keith was 11 which were to shape the rest of his life, and both of them caused him to burst into tears.'' Or, dealing with Armstrong this time, "People he had never been able to get an appointment with in the past were inviting him to lunch at the Garrick, even if, having met him, they didn't go as far as suggesting he should become a member.''

Though you might not guess it from his public persona, Archer has a dry sense of humour. Townsend, in the middle of a squash game at the New York Racquets Club, hears of a possible deal and flies straight to Heathrow, where "the cabbie didn't feel it was his place to ask why his fare was wearing a track suit and carrying a squash racket. Perhaps all the courts in New York were booked.'' Later, Armstrong drives through Manhattan to a key meeting and wonders how the other side got there ahead of him. "I suspect they walked,'' says his lawyer.

In the most sustained humorous sequence, Townsend gets bested by an ageing English heiress who has written an abysmal pornographic novel. She agrees to sell him her newspaper shares on condition he publishes the embarrassing bonkbuster. He puts lots of clever get-out clauses in the contract but she spots them all. No doubt more could be made of this Wodehousian material, but Archer doesn't do too badly.

Once Townsend acquires the paper, here called the Globe rather than the Sun, a curious thing happens. It is 1968, Wilson is at No.10 and Heath is opposition leader. Townsend instals his new editor, makes plans to turn the paper into a tabloid and prepares to tackle the print unions. A "few months'' are said to have gone by, the situation is the same, but suddenly the background has changed. Thatcher now leads the opposition and is poised to win the 1979 election.

This would be absurd if it weren't so Shakespearian. It exactly replicates the famous double time- scheme in Othello. Presumably, with Archer as with Shakespeare, these things are not quite mistakes, and not calculated trickery either, but stem from a kind of serendipity or constructive carelessness. It certainly helps the pace.

Archer doesn't do insight or atmosphere, and gives the imagination very few cues. But at least in the second half, when the dealmaking becomes more competitive, the pull of the story to some extent makes up for the lack of depth, and although it will frustrate those who enjoy wordplay and cerebral exercise,The Fourth Estate is not wholly unsatisfactory.