Wednesday, 1 September 1999

Morris West: Harlequin (1973)

Edition: Collins
Review number: 324

Harlequin et Cie is a family owned bank in early seventies Geneva. They are suddenly hit, simultaneously, by a security audit from computer consultant Creative Systems pointing to embezzlement by chairman George Harlequin, and a hostile take-over bid by Creative Systems' owner, Boris Yanko.

The novel is told from the point of view of Paul Desmond, close friend of George and one of the directors of the bank. He suspects that Yanko has taken advantage of his control of Harlequin's computer services to frame George as an embezzler, in order to force him to sell the bank. West uses this to create a tense thriller, one which is heavily rooted in its time by its dependence on a particular way of using computers.

It seems almost inconceivable today that a bank with offices in dozens of countries should not own even one computer of its own but instead rent time and operators from a firm which specialises in this. In the early seventies, this was not particularly unusual, computers being expensive and cumbersome. (1973 is after all closer to the date of IBM's famous statement that there would never be a market for more than 500 computers world-wide than it is to today.) Computer fraud has to be far more sophisticated in the 1990s than it was then.

West uses this peculiarity of the period as the peg around which his thriller is constructed, but its real strength is in the characterisations he writes. Thriller characters are often ciphers, barely affected by the terrifying events they endure. In this novel, Harlequin and Desmond are horrified by the violence which follows their decision to resist Yanko's takeover attempt, and the stunned grief they feel when Harlequin's wife is killed is particularly convincing.

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