Preston’s biography is largely anecdotal, without too much concern for context. The stories are good and Preston tells them with his gift for the kind of wry comedy that suits English decline. The “mystery” in his book’s subtitle surely refers to his behaviour in life rather than the manner of his death – of his family only Ghislaine believes he was murdered (oddly, given that her last instruction to the yacht’s crew was to “shred everything”). The picture of Maxwell that emerges is vivid but familiar: bombastic, florid, devious, gluttonous, bullying, absurd. But why was he these things?
The life of the disgraced media baron and pension thief Robert Maxwell was certainly not banal. It was epic on a scale no sane screenwriter would attempt to boil into a single script. Such is the sheer volume of events in Maxwell’s life that John Preston’s engaging account, Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, sometimes has only a few paragraphs to deal with episodes that would justify a book on their own.
What emerges from Fall is a vividly grotesque picture of the emperor showing off his nonexistent new clothes to an applauding crowd of courtiers — politicians, editors, bankers — who all too willingly suspended any disbelief they may have felt. If he said the moon was made of green cheese there was always a chorus of sycophants to assure him that this was indeed so. He came to believe that he could do whatever he liked. Hence the audacity of his final fraud, the theft of the pension funds. Anyone who questioned his money-juggling was either bullied or charmed into submission.
The author of Fall, John Preston, is also a novelist: he brings those talents to bear on a person whose entire life was outrageous invention, displaying on a vast canvas the path of the anti-hero set out by dramatists since the dawn of literature: hubris followed by nemesis.
No great drama is complete without relieving humour. In this, too, Preston delivers, even in the chapter covering Maxwell’s still mysterious death. (Did he fall from his yacht, or did he jump, as an act of suicide?)
Preston has written a wonderfully entertaining book and interviewed almost everyone who crossed Maxwell’s path in his heyday. He has an eye for comedy and drama and, where he explains his subject’s shady and dauntingly complex business dealings, he does so clearly and succinctly. But he doesn’t solve the mysteries and adds little of substance to several biographies – by, for example, Tom Bower and Roy Greenslade – that were published in the 1990s. Nor does he do much to put Maxwell into historical perspective.
Preston tells the story well. He is the author of A Very English Scandal, the story of the disgraced Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe and the basis of a successful television drama, and there is a sense that this book is intended as the basis for another. Cheerfully recounting previously reported anecdotes, its strength is in telling the grand sweep of an extraordinary life. In this tale of people who had a knack for a memorable phrase, Maxwell’s wife Betty emerges as the one with a real gift. When the DTI in 1971 delivered its too-memorable judgment, she wrote to him: “If you feel that we must . . . live elsewhere or emigrate to China or live underground or in a treetop, I am game.”
The truth is that all the bankers and businessmen, politicians and journalists who queue up to denigrate and revile Maxwell were happy at the time to put up with his abuse and his grotesque personal habits as long as they were enjoying his hospitality and taking his money. They sucked up to him. They made him possible — so much so that I closed this engrossing, amusing, appalling book with an odd sneaking sympathy for the old brute — and a profound desire never to read about him again.
There have been more than a dozen books about Maxwell, mainly published in the 90s, including a rather touching memoir, A Mind of My Own, by his long-suffering widow, Betty, who died in 2013. Preston comes to his subject with the advantage both of hindsight and his great skill at exposing hypocrisy and subterfuge, as he demonstrated with A Very English Scandal, about another high-profile chancer, Jeremy Thorpe. There are two particularly striking photos in this book. One shows Maxwell receiving the Military Cross from Field Marshal Montgomery in 1945 for his part in a heroic rescue of fellow soldiers in the final stages of the war.
It’s quite rare for a biography to be described as “jaw-dropping”, but this one truly is – Robert Maxwell is the most compelling, mysterious, monstrous character since Anthony Trollope’s Melmotte. The British Establishment always regarded him with deep suspicion and called him “the Bouncing Czech”, but by the end of his life he was being wooed by prime ministers and heads of state. It was only after his mysterious death that he was exposed, in Newsweek’s phrase, as “The Crook of the Century.” There have been previous biographies of Maxwell, but this is by far the best. John Preston is the former Telegraph journalist who wrote A Very English Scandal about Jeremy Thorpe, and he is a brisk and masterly storyteller.
Any good biography of a mountebank depicts not only its subject but also the ambivalent society that accommodated the monster. John Preston’s Fall does this with deft understatement. Preston does not really attack Maxwell. He just tells the story. By the end you feel that he is almost fond of the old brute in the way film viewers may nurture sympathy for King Kong as he clings to the Empire State Building being buzzed by biplanes.
Preston’s account of the Jeremy Thorpe affair, A Very English Scandal, used an almost novelistic eye to revive a well-worn scandal. Here there is a little more disclosure and a touch less topspin, but the result is equally satisfying.
"The story of Robert Maxwell's downfall is like 'Citizen Kane' and 'The Godfather' rolled into one." For this "dramatic and gripping" account of the rise and fall of business tycoon Robert Maxwell, Preston-a Sunday Telegraph and Evening Standard journalist, and the author of A Very English Scandal-has interviewed a string of high-profile names, including Rupert Murdoch, Alistair Campbell and Nicholas Coleridge. The result is a trove of "scandalous anecdotes and shocking revelations", as we discover how a man who had once laid such store by ethics and good behaviour became reduced to a bloated, amoral wreck.