Great scoundrels make good copy. The rise and fall of Jabez Spencer Balfour, JP, MP is well chronicled by David McKie. The saga unfolds not as a Victorian melodrama and morality tale (which is how it must have looked when it exploded as the biggest finan- cial scandal of the 1890s) but as a fast- moving thriller, full of action, colour and (at times) laughter.
McKie's account of the rise of Jabez - to use the name by which the anti-hero became notorious - is a triumph of municipal and political reporting. The Croydon-based mayor, magistrate, MP and financier was, in 20th-century terms, a sort of T Dan Smith, John Poulson and Horatio Bottomley rolled into one. Jabez built his empire on grandiose construction schemes, inflated values and fraudulent accounts, but he cloaked it all behind a self-confident mask of hypocritical respectability.
Aided by hindsight, McKie peels away that mask with brutal but justified cynicism. Yet, for 49 years, no close observer of the Jabez phenomenon (except for his brother) spotted that this Melmotte-like monster was a fraud. Victorian values included a high threshold of tolerance for humbuggery. Although McKie exposes Jabez's early acrobatics in politics, philanthropy and business with scathing wit, none of his contemporaries spotted the false notes or even the absurdities in his career. "This was a man who could not pass a fire without wanting to put an iron in it," is one of the many good lines in the book describing Jabez's political gyrations as a carpet-bagging MP and bountiful country squire, who gave his villagers a recreation ground but forgot to pay for it. The constituents and the villagers looked at their MP and benefactor through the rose-tinted spectacles of deferential collusion, joining in the national game of hypocrisy. The night-vision goggles of 21st-century investigative reporting had not been invented.
Even so, it was a Financial Times journalist who, in 1892, first rumbled the scandal of Jabez's overstated assets and massaged profits. McKie lacks the knowledge of a City reporter when it comes to unravelling the web of deceit at the Liberator Building Society, the London and General Bank and other Jabez vehicles. But the book rightly focuses on the saddest part of the whole story - the loss of life savings by many small depositors.
The narrative regains its stride with Jabez's flight to Argentina, his sojourn there as a fugitive from justice and the comic attempts by the British Foreign Office to extradite him. Eventually a hero emerges in the person of Inspector Frank Froest of Scotland Yard. He gets his man with the help of such Wild West tactics as kidnapping, commandeering a train, driving it across South America at high speed, and even killing members of a Balfourista rescue posse that is trying to free Jabez. There's a great movie here.
The tempo slows down once Jabez returns to England and justice grinds towards its inevitable end - 14 years' hard labour. He emerges from prison at the age of 62 with a resilience of spirit that McKie rather admires. Jabez's end was better than his beginning, and his story is riveting.