"The whole story is too ridiculous for words," says Lord Brisket, the eminent Oxford historian charged with writing the official history of the 2017 referendum on British membership of the European Union.
The same verdict has to be delivered on Andrew Marr's first novel, a thriller-cum-satire that has plenty of good moments but founders on its frankly ludicrous plot.
Head Of State tells the story of the mother of all cover-ups at the heart of the British establishment. Days before an in-versus-out referendum, the popular and respected Prime Minister, Bill Stevenson, who's spearheading the campaign to remain part of Europe, drops dead in his study in Downing St. Such is the blind panic among his inner circle that some smart alec comes up with a ripping wheeze. Why not suppress news of his death until after the referendum?
The conspirators then attempt to do just that, smuggling the body of the late Prime Minister out of No 10 via a secret tunnel and employing Rory Bremner to mimic his voice in radio phone-ins and telephone conversations with the new king, Charles III. Bremner discharges his duties with aplomb, exceeding his brief only when he promises additional funding for the arts, to the consternation of civil servants.
After that, things get really silly, with journalists being bumped off to stop the story leaking and pillars of the establishment meeting in darkened Mayfair cinemas to discuss the implications of the referendum for the pound. It just won't wash, even as black comedy.
If the plot is pretty risible, some of the characterisation is excellent and the main reason to buy the book. There are few shrewder observers of Westminster and Fleet St than Marr, and his deft touch is apparent throughout. Covering up the death of a prime minister would only be possible if the press were lazy and incurious, and Marr has fun pinpointing the myriad ways in which, because of the 24-hour news cycle, even stories that should stink to high heaven get recycled unchecked.
Minor character after minor character comes to life, from arch-fixer Alois Haydn, silky-tongued friend to the great and good, to Amanda Andrews, the prime minister's formidable gatekeeper, a wheedling manipulator who refers to the king as "Kingy".
Best of all, in some ways, is Marr's inch-perfect portrait of a veteran newspaper editor Ken Cooper, who can hardly utter a sentence without deploying the f-word, dreads meetings with "marketing department weasels" and "circulation ferrets" but still has the nose for a story of an old-style Fleet St news hound.
There is no shortage of private jokes, some of them mildly amusing. Ian Hislop is sighted in the window of a Soho cafe, eating a large cream bun. Fraser Nelson, the Scottish editor of the Spectator, is reinvented as Nelson Fraser, a kilt-wearing Downing St press secretary. The historian Dominic Sandbrook is teased for writing an 800-page history of Britain from 1982 to 1983 which languishes unread in the London Library.
Marr even makes a bold bid to scoop the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex Award with a hilariously gauche passage: "And the sex worked; they bucked like deer and squirmed like eels. And, after that, vice versa."
Marr obviously had fun writing the novel and communicates some of that fun to his readers, but coming from such a distinguished source, it feels like a rather feeble effort.
Head of State
by Andrew Marr
(Fourth Estate $39.99)