Playing with fire

Lead review


Dead on Time
Meghnad Desai
HarperCollins,
2009, pp 238, Rs 399


Dead on Time is a thriller from the well known economist Lord Meghnad Desai. And it is yet another surprise from someone who has dabbled with serious left-of-center economics most part of his life, has written sombre economic treatise, occupied a Chair at the inimitable London School of Economics and has been conferred with Lordship by Her Majesty’s Government. I say — yet another — for Lord Meghnad had surprised the world the first time when he wrote the book on Dilip Kumar, the matinee idol of yesteryear, a far cry from his province of socialist economy. 

This time around, Lord Meghnad has dug deep into his experience as a member of the House of Lords in the British Parliament, where he has enjoyed the ringside view, and occasionally been in the thick of things, of British politics. His familiarity of the Parliament’s exalted halls and August chambers, the whispering corridors where much of the world order is negotiated and manipulated, his access to the House of Commons and its myriad ways, etiquette and idiosyncrasies, bring to life the backdrop of the book. For a commoner, the book provides a membership to that distinguished body, though vicarious and transient, and reveals some of its quirky ways.

Dead on Time cannot be termed a political thriller in the same vein as the Cold War opuses of Forsythe or Leon Uris where major powers of the world are at swords end, and stakes are high for the world at large to survive or succumb to some dreadful plot. Here stakes are low on the reader, where politics of the British variety provides with the storyline as well as the landscape of the novel.

Dead on Time is one particular day in the life of the British Prime Minister Harry White — a suave, quick thinking and ambitious Labour politician with a libido on overdrive. His day is packed to the minute, as a Prime Minister’s day ought to be, with meetings, lunch with the members of the commission of the New Millennium project that includes The Archbishop, the Chief Rabbi, a Duke and a renowned professor of sociology. A murmur of revolt in his party that needs to be nipped in the bud. Travel to Glasgow in the afternoon for a football match sensitive to the politics of Scotland, a match the progression and outcome of which Harry White couldn’t care less about.

The first twist in the tale comes about late in the morning, at 12.15 pm to be precise. The megalomaniac media tycoon Matt Drummond wants the Prime Minister to shunt out of the scheduled lunch meeting with the eminent body and shunt in to a clandestine one with him Drummond, and his lawyer — a woman of Malaysian origin of Indo-Chinese descent young enough to be Drummond’s daughter who also doubles up as his mistress.

Matt Drummond plans a major sexual expose in his media that can ruin a powerful politician and damage the electoral prospect of a political party. A splinter group of political activists contrives to carry out a major crime. While Prime Minister Harry White contemplates not only to neutralise the voice of dissent against his aggressive policy on Libya, but also on his impending sexual conquest of a member of his own office staff. Here if one is reading between the lines, so be it. And thus the story unfolds, of rivalry and intrigue, of scandal and a heinous plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. All the ingredients — politics, sex, crime and business — that tabloids are made of.

The novel starts slow and somewhat haltingly. The reader can occasionally get overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters packed into the pages. Though one must give it to Lord Meghnad for the precision with which he has sketched each of the characters, especially of the political variety, and their interplay. How does Christine feel for the Prime Minister? Or Matt Drummond towards his wife with whom he has little in common? The format of the novel with its progressive and precise time of the day and place — 10.05 am, London/ 10 Downing Street — does not pace up the novel from the beginning, as a thriller of this kind is expected to. However as the novel progresses, it gains momentum. The sub-plots tend to converge, slowly but surely, towards a prospect of a climax. Will the plotters be able to assassinate the Prime Minister?


Dead on Time has no pretention to be anything other than a racy thriller to read, enjoy and move ahead. To that end, the book is quite successful.

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