Friday 22 June 2018

Book Review 6: 'Paper Money' by Ken Follett.

A Review.

'A million pounds 
is nothing,
but a rooster 
can save a family 
from starvation.'

Follett’s introduction to his novel informs the reader that Paper money is his second book written in 1976, and is one of his most unsuccessful books.
It showcases the nexus between the world of crime, high finance and journalism. The author draws multiple comparisons between this book and his other works such as The Mogliani scandal and The Eye of the Needle.
Follett opines that the plot in this story is the cleverest he has devised and rues that the small sales of the book, convinced him that clever plots satisfy the authors more than the readers. This, in any crime fiction reader’s opinion, is a pity. One needs to read the plots of the masters to understand the mounting thrill of uncovering each facet of a twisted plot, layer by delicious layer.

The Key Characters:

Felix Laski, the businessman who is unscrupulous enough to snatch the lifetime business, as well as the wife of a hapless banker.

Tony Cox, the ruthless gangster who engineers crucial meetings with important businessmen, with the same aplomb as dangerous raids of guarded money.

Tim Fitzpeterson, the minister who commits adultery for the first time in his life, only to suffer the dire repercussions of the same.

Arthur Cole, the deputy news editor of the Evening Post, who compromises more for work ethics than likes to admit, only to end up in patronizing bitterness.

Kevin Hart, the ambitious journalist who ends up at the right place at the right time and yet discovers that the world of journalism has far more layers of disillusionment in its underbelly, than he realized.

Derek Hamilton, the banker who suffers acute ulcer as a result of sacrificing his health for affluence.

Ellen Hamilton, is Derek’s beautiful wife, who finds solace in an illicit affair to assuage her mid-life crisis.


The Pros:

The neat chronological order of each hour in which the story is presented is agreeable to the reader. A catchy beginning at six a.m. and a crisp ending at four p.m. marks the time-frame, in which the whole sequence of events unfold and culminate.
Although the number of characters is high in the book, they are brought together with skill and finesse towards the climax. These characters are of varied nature, ranging from ruthless crooks to half-witted men, from seasoned hookers to bored housewives, from seasoned politicians to ambitious journalists; the book has it all.
Most of even the minor characters, however nameless, have a meaty role to play to take the story forward. Some characters (Doreen Johnson, young Billy Jones & Evan Johnson) are introduced halfway through the novel, however they have been given just the right amount of space, to let the reader understand where they come from and why their thoughts & actions influence the story.
It is a fast paced thriller, given that the whole book plays out the drama that occurs in a single day, with hourly accounts. The first half is a series of unrelated events occurring around unconnected characters that progress to a culmination of a brilliant conspiracy, with the power to make or break fortunes of the key characters.
The dark underbelly of journalism, the nitty-gritties of day-to-day functional tensions of an evening paper newsroom, and the way it functions with its tentacles reaching out to every section of the populace is brought out with flair. The twist at the end is endearing, especially since it restores our faith in the innate goodness of certain humans, telling us what sacrifices it takes for a newspaper, to balance its responsibility towards the readers, to maintain dignity and quality of the papers it puts out day after day in the fast paced world where Breaking News is hard to come by. Despite the book being more than half a century old, most newspapers of today may benefit from taking a few leaves out of this book, solely for the principles the editor endorses. The twist at the end leaves the reader with a bitter taste in the mouth, and yet the reader realizes that this is the best twist to relish in its realistic portrayal.
And for those who believe in Karma, or the twisted hand of fate, the climax provides the reader with exactly the kind of karmic retribution that befits the characters who believe they can get away with duplicitous and unethical deceit.
One however cannot help but feel sorry for the key characters who face nemesis, despite their deviousness, because their sheer genius and tenacity in handling the setbacks that come their way makes one want to root for them, to get away unscathed.


The Cons:

The lack of one central character takes some time to get used to. Some of the characters, and the minute details pertaining to their lives (like Herbert Chiesman) could have been done away with, as they do not seem to have too much substance to add to the main narrative.  Having said that, character development is seen to be lacking, where the main protagonists are concerned.
Further, excessive characters demand too much memory from the readers, especially today’s readers, who are accustomed to the short-lived memory requirement of instant gratification offered by social media.
The reader cannot help feeling at some point in the story that the villains are just not villainous enough. That perhaps is closer to the truth than most stories (especially movies) we encounter, where the antagonist is irreversibly detestable to the point of generating hatred in the reader.
The main don, Tony Cox is more human, (perhaps more realistic) than his cold-hearted portrayal in the beginning. He surprises the reader with his almost casual,  even humorous reaction to the major, unforgivable goof-ups of his men, that eventually lead to his downfall. In fact, Tony is rather sweet & appreciative, as the boss of the moron who almost ruins the whole operation. And he actually feels for the misfortunes of his men, including their personal lives.
And since when do the kingpins of the underworld admit their gunshot-wounded soldiers at the Government hospital, let alone reveal their own identities to the policemen they encounter?  Sounds surreal?  Yes, to the point of suspending belief. Even for the 1970’s, by which time legends like the Godfather (1969, to be precise) had already made their mark, this idea is a little farfetched.  
While the prose and thought flow of the other character point towards his ‘ruthlessness of punishment’, there is barely any evidence to his supposed ruthlessness. In fact, too many scenes in the story point to the contrary, towards his almost obsessive and endearing love for his mother or his affection towards his brother & his dog.
Laski is too predictable, in his sudden realization of what he wants from his life, love-life to be precise. Been there, read that, one time too many before.
One has to keep reminding oneself that this book was written at the time when desk telephones were the main medium of communication and the concept of social media in interaction was almost nonexistent. Thereby, the reader tends to get frustrated because the characters only get to hear crucial news only through face to face meetings or the telephone.


The conclusion:

A pretty decent read, although Follett’s other works are a few notches better. Readers who dig acquisitions, mergers, takeovers, financial crunches, business deals, share market intricacies etc. are sure to find this an enjoyable read. Added to the recipe are illicit affairs, blackmail, mental instabilty and violence; lies and betrayal, combined with a pulsing media coverage, all of this interwoven into the main plot might make for further incentives to some readers.
Pick up this book if you have ample time to finish it in one go, if possible. If you take a break of a few days and get back to it, you may have to start over because you won’t be able to recall the sheer number of characters & their roles in the story, unless you have a strong memory.
Ken Follet’s fans are sure to get the taste of a different feel, that takes away from his usual style & finesse of storytelling. However, the opportunity to read the celebrated author’s work during his youth makes the book worthwhile.


Excerpts :

He loved her for needing him, no one else needed him.

How naïve he had been to think that a young girl like Dizzie would fall head over heels in love with someone like him. He was a patsy in some elaborate scheme which was much bigger than petty blackmail.

In a civilized society, he thought, when there was no news there would be no newspapers.

All he could do was think about the promise of joy that was false. He did not have the will to wait, perhaps years, for the revenge which would restore his self-respect. But the dead feel no pain.

The trouble was, she liked the taste of freedom.

She smiled as she recalled how thoughtful each had looked after she delivered her veiled ultimatums. She knew her men: each would analyse what she had said, understand after a while, and congratulate himself on his perspicacity. Neither would know he was being threatened.

She had dreaded this ever since the day, fifteen or more years ago, when she had discovered that she had married a villain. But it was never easy to keep secrets in marriage.

The story he had dictated over the phone had been re-wriiten beyond recognition. He felt empty and bitter. This was to have been his moment of glory and some spineless sub-editor had soured it.

The story we put in the paper is what we know and only what we know… But we’re not here to print our suspicions.

People usually thought he was incapable of getting upset because he never shed tears. That was how they found out he was different.

He was running scared and he did not like it. It was his role to dominate situations such as this: he liked to be the only one in the know, the manipulator…Going cap in hand to money lenders was not his style.

It made him laugh to think of it this way: He had made a million pounds in a day, and the only thing he could think of to buy was a three-pound box of chocolates.


Photo : ©ChethanaRamesh

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