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Fall Reviews

Fall by John Preston

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell

John Preston

3.80 out of 5

11 reviews

Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication date: 4 Feb 2021
ISBN: 9780241388679

The best biography yet of the media magnate Robert Maxwell - by turns engrossing, amusing and appalling' Robert Harris, Sunday Times

'Electrifying... the supreme chronicler of modern British scandals' Mail on Sunday

From the bestselling author of A Very English Scandal, the jaw-dropping life story of the notorious business tycoon Robert Maxwell.

In February 1991, the media mogul and former MP Robert Maxwell made a triumphant entrance into Manhattan harbour aboard his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, to complete his purchase of the ailing New York Daily News. Crowds lined the quayside to watch his arrival, taxi drivers stopped their cabs to shake his hand and children asked for his autograph. But just ten months later, Maxwell disappeared from the same yacht off the Canary Islands, only to be found dead in the water soon afterward.

Maxwell was the embodiment of Britain's post-war boom. Born an Orthodox Jew, he had escaped the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, fought in World War 2, and was decorated for his heroism with the Military Cross. He went on to become a Labour MP and an astonishingly successful businessman, owning a number of newspapers and publishing companies. But on his death, his empire fell apart, as long-hidden debts and unscrupulous dealings came to light. Within a few days, Maxwell was being reviled as the embodiment of greed and corruption. No one had ever fallen so far and so quickly.

What went so wrong? How did a war hero and model of society become reduced to a bloated, amoral wreck? In this gripping book, John Preston delivers the definitive account of Maxwell's extraordinary rise and scandalous fall.

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
3 stars out of 5
Ian Jack
27 Jan 2021

"The stories are good and Preston tells them with his gift for the kind of wry comedy that suits English decline"

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?


4 stars out of 5
6 Apr 2021

"John Preston fascinates with portrait of rags to riches narcissist, shapeshifter and survivor"

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.

4 stars out of 5
Francis Wheen
6 Feb 2021

"the narrative gathers irresistible page-turning pace"

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. 

4 stars out of 5
Dominic Lawson
4 Feb 2021

"a jaw-dropping biography about Robert Maxwell "

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?)

3 stars out of 5
3 Feb 2021

"A new biography ventures inside the monstrous ego of the robber baron of Fleet Street. "

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.

3 stars out of 5
2 Feb 2021

"John Preston’s timely book revisits the extraordinary fate and fortunes of a larger-than-life media mogul"

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.”

4 stars out of 5
31 Jan 2021

"Preston has an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the revealing quote"

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.

4 stars out of 5
31 Jan 2021

"This life of the media magnate is by turns engrossing, amusing and appalling"

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.

5 stars out of 5
Lynn Barber
30 Jan 2021

" such a richly detailed, well-written, gripping biography I wished that it could have been twice as long"

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. 

4 stars out of 5
27 Jan 2021

"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"

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. 

4 stars out of 5
Caroline Sanderson
3 Apr 2020

"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."

"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.