“Harlequin” by Morris West: A clownshow or serious drama?
Now, I've read quite a lot of books in my time. Because I'm an Uber-nerd, I usually stick to the sci-fi and fantasy genre. However, I have, on occasion, dipped into horror, detective, thriller, and mystery genres, and even (egads) non-fiction books just for a change of pace. What surprised me most about Morris West's “Harlequin” was that it didn't neatly fit into any of those genres. It's not based on real events, but it's set in the real world.
It takes place in the past, but not far enough back to be considered Historical Fiction (the 1980s). There's murder and mystery, but most of the sleuthing is done by side characters, so it's not a detective story either. Also, every character is loaded, like they just hit the jackpot at a casino, but this isn't a story about eating the rich.
I guess I should just describe it, and you can conclude for yourself where you think it fits.
“Harlequin”, despite its name, is not about the famous DC Villain, Harley Quinn, on-and-off girlfriend of the Joker and accomplished psychiatrist (when she herself isn't locked in a loony bin). It's actually about George Harlequin, from the perspective of his best friend, Paul Desmond.
Paul is a classic rags to riches story. He grew up with nothing, earned himself a small fortune by fair means and foul until he met George. George took a liking to him for some reason and took him on as a right-hand man. Paul, being nothing if not loyal to a fault, is now second-in-command to a large European bank, multiple apartments and homes across the globe, and is only jealous of one man: George himself.
George Harlequin was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He's lived in nothing but comfort and style his whole life. He's easy-going, handsome, charismatic, and a polyglot. He's happily married to Julie… the woman Paul loves, although George is unintentionally distant.
The plot begins when business associate / rival Basil Yanko (head of Creative Computers LLC) gives them a report that their computer systems drained fifteen million dollars from the bank's accounts… and the man who seems to have done it was George Harlequin himself. Taking full advantage of the situation, Basil Yanko offers to buy out the bank above market value.
Outraged, George and Paul scramble to cover the lost money out of pocket and, with the help of fellow businessmen, and go on a mission to find the real culprit of the theft. They are convinced that Yanko is responsible for the theft and will do anything to prove it.
And here is where the plot really takes a turn: Understandably, George and Paul hire Saul Wells, a private investigator, to work the case. At the same time, they also turn to a certain Aaron Bogdanovich for some reason, Mossad spy, assassin, blackmailer, and whatever dirty work Israel needs. Aaron's on a mission to hunt Arab terrorists and other undesirables if it's in Israel's interest.
It's not very clear why Paul and George would turn to such a character, considering that the worst thing that's happened so far is corporate theft and espionage, but it turns out to have been a prudent choice once important people connected to the corporations start turning up dead.
So ultimately, “Harlequin” is a tale of intrigue and murder as rival corporate and political interests come crashing together as George, Paul, and Yanko scheme to take each other down. The crux of the story is, can they do it without becoming the very cretins that they're battling against? Can George's marriage hold together under the strain?
What “Harlequin” really seems to get right is the corporate mindset of gazillionaires. Yeah, a normal person would probably go to the police as soon as dead bodies and gunmen in dark alleyways start turning up. But normal people don't run international businesses with reputations to maintain and a quarterly margin to keep up.
“Harlequin” shows businessmen for what they are: Schmoozing, conniving deal-makers, who are where they are in the world because they're all insane workaholics with a flexible moral code. That doesn't make them bad people, and most businessmen aren't. It just makes it very easy to be a bad person.
All in all, the characters feel like businessmen, which a lot of stories don't accomplish because they're written by writers who have never stepped foot into the business world and who usually just ape Hollywood's most common businessmen tropes.
George is determined to win this battle against Basil Yanko at all costs, while Paul is desperately clinging to him, trying to hold him back. George dives all-in to the “abyss”, as it were, and doesn't care what happens to himself. Paul, meanwhile, has to juggle his loyalty to George, his love for George's neglected wife Julie, his mixed feeling towards George's secretary, Suzy, his own desire to play ball and win, and his confused moral compass.
All in all, if you're into a pseudo-murder mystery that's more akin to an episode of West Wing than Sherlock Holmes, “Harlequin” will be right up your alley.
I can't really get too much into the problems I have with this book without spoilers, so I'll be leaving a majority of my nitpicks for the spoiler section below. What I can say is that the characters tend to expose a bit more than is natural. They'll basically monologue their feelings for a paragraph, which will clear up any confusion about the character's motivations and plans.
Also, I think you also have to be a certain kind of nerd to “get” this book. There's a lot of “Wow, that escalated quickly” moments, out of the blue and out of nowhere. It also only marginally hand-holds the reader through the geopolitical interests of America, Europe, Israel, and the rest of the Middle East, plus a couple of real-life terrorist organizations, like the Japanese Red Army.
Oh yeah, Israel's geopolitical relationships play a surprisingly large role in this story, so if you have a particularly strong opinion about Israel's relationships with its neighbors, that may help or hinder your enjoyment. Also, if you know next to nothing about Israel's geopolitical relationships with its neighbors and Europe's relationship to oil money and the middle-east, you might get lost in parts of the story.
So yeah, if you think you're the right kind of nerd to love all these sorts of nitty-gritty political intrigues and details, then these aren't cons. Technically, the story doesn't rely on this meta knowledge to tell its story, so you probably can follow along without it. It'll probably just help to understand certain motivations and plot developments.
So yeah, spoiler alert, if you didn't already realize. Major plot points will be spoiled ahead, as I rant about them. You have been warned. No mercy.
Basil Yanko did it.
Egads, I know. Despite how complicated this plot is, at least superficially, there's no surprise twist where it turns out that someone else was behind the embezzlement all along. Honestly, I really thought that the book was going to have a last-minute reveal where George Harlequin reveals that he actually did embezzle the fifteen million dollars, and Yanko was just an opportunist. But no, Yanko did it, and that's basically known right from the start. So I guess the plot twist is… that there is no plot twist. Ta-da!
I don't think I've irrevocably removed any enjoyment to be had from Harlequin by revealing that, though. The majority of the story is spent trying to prove that Harlequin did do it, even though that's known by basically every character involved.
However, I do have a couple of nitpicks with the book.
First of all, there a couple of moments where the stakes suddenly escalate out of nowhere, and this both in and against the book's favor. I won't spoil some of the better moments, but as I mentioned above, one of the first things that George and Paul do at the outset of the plot is hire the services of Aaron Bogdanovich, a man whose skill set seems to far, far exceed the requirements of the job at the time of service. It just so happens that the plot escalates to murder not long after, but it doesn't make sense from a more legitimate business perspective, trying to investigate a case of suspected corporate theft.
Then there's the ending… this is really the end-all-be-all spoiler, so if you really haven't read the book before this point, stop right now, pick up “Harlequin” by Morris West from somewhere, and read it through before the next paragraph. There shall be no more warnings.
The ending hinges on a scene where Basil Yanko is coerced under threat of death to sign a confession that he is responsible for the deaths of the various murder victims in the story. Basically, Basil, George, Paul, and a couple of lawyers are held at gunpoint and are forced to watch Basil succumb to poison unless Basil agrees to sign the confession. Basil signs it, but it turns out that the poison was actually just a sleeping agent, and Yanko is taken away and eventually recovers just fine.
Then, in the final, final scene, George pulls out the signed note and burns it triumphantly, and all I could think was… who won? If the point was to force a confession out of Yanko, the note would never be accepted in any court of law. It was signed under clear and obvious duress, with witnesses. If it was meant to be blackmail, who would believe it? The only witnesses were Yanko, Paul, George, the lawyers, and the gunman, who is never seen again. Considering the very public scandal between the rivaling companies, it could easily be argued that the letter was forged to ruin Yanko. And if the PR would really have been that bad, should Yanko ever decide to call George's bluff, he wouldn't have the note anymore.
So considering the passionate hatred that George displayed to take down Yanko, even to the point of declaring that he would kill the man, it seems like an anticlimactic conclusion to this entire escapade, where Basil Yanko basically gets to walk away from murder, only marginally poorer, under threat of the bad PR a useless piece of evidence, that gets burned anyway.
6.8 / 10 You'll enjoy it if you're the right kind of fan for the intrigue “Harlequin” offers