BOOK REVIEW / The bank mismanager: 'The Money Changers' - Charles Raw: Harvill, 20 pounds

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RIVERS OF innocent investors' funds have flowed illegally into offshore bank accounts since the Banco Ambrosiano imploded at the beginning of the Eighties. Financial scandals take a long time to unravel, especially when they are international, were constructed over many years and are by their nature designed to be inscrutable. This painstakingly detailed book is, if nothing else, a monument to the amazing dedication of the author. He has set himself the task of trying to explain one of the most complex frauds ever, the denouement of which, with the Italian banker Roberto Calvi found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in 1982, might be eclipsed for drama only by the disappearance of Robert Maxwell from his yacht in the Canaries.

Charles Raw has spent nine years investigating the relationship that Calvi, the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, maintained with the Vatican, and his dealings with the heads of the P2 Masonic Lodge, whom he helped to steal dollars 250m ( pounds 180m). With a certain theatricality he introduces his new findings. No one (neither the Bank of Italy nor the various courts or regulators) has got to the bottom of how Calvi gained control of Credito Varesino, for example. 'This is what I shall now attempt,' he announces, like a magician preparing a trick, and plunges into an intricate explanation.

But he is never in any danger of sensationalising the story, and concentrates obsessively on documenting the transactions through which Calvi, with increasing vertigo, built up a rickety edifice of doomed shell companies, illustrated in the text by examples of scribbled secret accounts which Calvi carried around with him like household shopping lists.

Despite the potential to speculate on how the various conspiracies might add up to one grand theory, Raw remains sceptical of all uncorroborated evidence, is cautious about motives and wary of being sidetracked into scene- setting. Calvi himself comes across as a pathetic figure. The few colourful details attesting to his 'dashing streak' - for example, that in the Second World War he joined an aristocratic cavalry regiment to fight on the Russian front, where he used to carry a live chicken under his coat to prevent his hands from freezing - are mentioned only in passing.

The chapter headings promise an interesting narrative - 'Two Scorpions in a Bottle', 'Way Offshore in Nicaragua' - but a typical paragraph, picked at random, contains six figures and three dates. It is heavy going. Even for the financially minded, it risks becoming a reference work rather than a readable account.

Yet the accumulation of detail lends authority to the few conclusions that Raw reaches. The most important of these is that Cardinal Paul Casimir Marcinkus is guilty. Without him, Calvi would never have been able to maintain the fraud, because it was with the connivance of Marcinkus at the head of the Vatican central bank that he was able to fool auditors and regulators into believing his network of banks was founded on deposits rather than a big black hole.

In keeping with his scepticism over grand theories, Raw does not develop the walk-on part of the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza. 'There are enough real conspiracies in this book without the imagined conspiracy between Calvi, P2 and the Vatican to finance right-wing regimes in South America.' And he comes down firmly in favour of Calvi having committed suicide, rather than having been murdered.

It is admirably honest that a book this size admits there are still loose ends, and that its attempt to be definitive cannot be successful. But we are left wondering not so much how it all happened but why. What seems to have sustained Calvi in his fraud, as well as the dollars 30m he took for himself, was his unfounded optimism that he could one day be baled out by the price of Ambrosiano shareholdings taking off, and when this seemed increasingly unlikely, he relied more on self-delusion and paying off blackmailers. If he could just have kept going until the stock market boom in the mid- Eighties, he might conceivably have got away with it.