Nicholas van Hoogstraten, you might remember, is the "devil's landlord" who was jailed for ten years in 2002 for the manslaughter, presumed to be a contract killing, of Mohammed Raja, another devilish landlord. Van Hoogstraten is famous for owning a vast property empire, and ruling it by fear; for amassing a large fortune; for building himself a country mansion inspired by Buckingham Palace and complete with his own mausoleum; for having lots of beautiful black girlfriends, whom he referred to as his "bitches"; for dressing in ankle-length mink coats - and for buying nearly a million acres of land in Zimbabwe, over which he ruled "like a sort of benevolent dictator".
Van Hoogstraten is also known for throwing a hand grenade into the front room of a former business associate. When questioned by the police, he said: "I think it's marvellous. The bastard owes me money." He is notorious for humiliating people who have crossed him. Having fallen out with his former defence lawyer Michael Dring, he followed Dring to France and, on the way back in the boat train, "went to the lavatory, excreted into some paper, entered Dring's compartment and squashed the excrement in his face".
As a landlord, van Hoogstraten referred to his tenants as "scumbags", "dog's meat" and "filth". He made money, Rachman-style, by buying houses full of sitting tenants, and then forcing the tenants out to increase the value of the property. He once said: "I am hard-hearted. I view people as trash, just trash." In 1970, he was sentenced to four years for the hand grenade attack; the judge who heard his appeal called him "a sort of self-imagined devil. He thinks he is an emissary of Beelzebub."
To set the scene, the authors of this book, Mike Walsh and Don Jordan, a couple of TV documentary-makers, catch up with van Hoogstraten as he is assaulting his 18-year-old girlfriend Tanika Sali just before his most recent trial. Sali is described as "tall, black, curvaceous, with the face of an angel". "You f***ing bitch, I know you've been with another man," says the 57-year-old tycoon, who has denounced this book as being full of "lies and distortions".
What motivates the man? That is what the reader really wants to know. After all, van Hoogstraten is handsome, clever and more than capable of getting rich without breaking the law. A psychiatrist who assessed him after his manslaughter trial "decided that it would take years of psychoanalysis to understand the man". Walsh and Jordan have talked to dozens of people, including van Hoogstraten himself. They can give you chapter and verse on his police record. They can speculate on the size of his fortune (they think he may now be almost bankrupt because of the recent political instability in Zimbabwe). All of this is fascinating. But as they themselves say, "those who fall for him could be excused for not realising just what lurks within".
What does lurk within? Searching for clues, Walsh and Jordan look into van Hoogstraten's face. "First, the mouth. It has a fluid nature. Hard, but soft." Next, the eyes: "As if by some alchemy, he seems to be able to alter the pigment in his irises." Still, they can't quite get to the bottom of "the problem with van Hoogstraten". They know everything about him, but also, it seems, nothing. On the one hand, he is "almost a pantomime villain". On the other, "he is, perhaps, an evil bastard. Or somewhere between the two. Or perhaps both."
There are a few clues. Van Hoogstraten, christened Nicholas Marcel Hoogstraten (he added the "van" later), was born into a lower-middle-class family in West Sussex. His father, Charles, made his living in a munitions factory in Bognor, and later became a wine steward on the Royal Mail shipping line. "I didn't get on with my father," says van Hoogstraten. "He always saw me as a rival." He also says: "My mother was not nice to me. I never had any affection." And he refers to her as a "whining cow".
The rivalry with his father might be the key to the man. Was Charles violent and dominating when he came home from sea? Possibly, think the authors. The young van Hoogstraten was a prodigy; he made thousands of pounds buying and selling stamps. At 15, in 1960, he was supposedly worth £30,000. But Charles sneered - to him it was just "playing with stamps". Young Nicholas became "a difficult teenager". He had run-ins with the teachers at his Jesuit school. He wore a three-piece business suit instead of his uniform. A nun once tried to hit him with a chair leg. He whacked her back. "She never tried again," says van Hoogstraten.
Amazingly, when he was caught in a stamp scam, his father took him to sea; he was hired as a teenage bellboy on a ship called the Andes, and spent time in the Caribbean. What happened on that trip? Here, the details are hazy. But what a story! A brilliant thwarted boy, a rivalrous father, an ocean cruise. Van Hoogstraten says he made a fortune by buying parcels of land on Nassau. Or was there "a much more sinister explanation" for his sudden wealth? Only one man knows, and he languishes, Hannibal Lecter-like, in prison. When he was released from custody as a young man, he said that the experience had made him "five times richer, a hundred times more intelligent and a thousand more times more powerful and dangerous" than he had been before. This is not a bad life of van Hoogstraten, but the story, one feels, is far from over.