Editor’s note: The Lovefraud reader “Usedandabused” recently found A Dangerous Fortune, by Ken Follett, in her garage. Although it’s not a new book—published in 1993—she said it was the best portrayal of a psychopath that she’d ever read.
In this breathtaking and complex page-turner, master storyteller Ken Follett portrays a psychopath with sharp emotional clarity that cannot be found in a scientific text. Micky Miranda, the son of a brutal psychopathic South American caudillo of the late 19th century, jumped from the pages into my psyche during his twenty-five year scam of a prominent London banking family. Devoid of compassion and remorse but rife with cutting instincts into the psyches of others, his relationships are nothing more than contrived tricks against his victims. The convincing tales of the victims’ responses ignite the power of the psychopath into a firebomb that the reader will feel for days.
The story begins with a tragic drowning at a prominent boys school in 1866 and ends in a brilliant mirror of that event. From his perjury to spare the banking magnate’s son who was believed the perpetrator, he captivates erotic obsessions in both the boy, Edward, and his mother, Augusta, that last for decades and culminate in his control of and destruction of the once omnipotent bank. Edward is a sloth dulled by his wealthy upbringing while Augusta, a sociopath in her own right, plays the London “A” list like chess pieces to achieve both Micky’s financial goals and her own social ambitions.
Micky and Augusta are nearly thwarted at several key junctures by the “good guys,” another tricky but gentler love triangle between Maisie, the beautiful and clever daughter of a factory worker; Solly, the fat but amiable heir of the “other big bank,” the Jewish bank; and Hugh, the poor relative of Edward and Augusta who evolves into a banking genius. Hugh’s father had owned the factory where Maisie’s father was dismissed penniless when a bank crashed, forcing Maisie into homelessness at eleven, and Hugh into the home of aunt Augusta and cousin Edward.
The book is sprinkled with many other interesting characters — Maisie’s brother ran off to American, is later elected to Parliament, and has a clandestine affair with Micky’s discarded wife, Rachel, a forward thinking radical who stayed single longer than was fashionable. The quiet but undisguised homosexuality of Hugh’s decent uncle, Samuel, is maliciously exploited by Augusta early in the novel. Micky’s nemesis, Tonio, of a rival South American family, runs in terror from one episode to the next while Maisie’s girlhood friend, April, cheerfully evolves into from a playful courtesan to the owner of several London brothels.
Follett brilliantly mirrors one event against another decades later and packs several stunning chapters into only a few cataclysmic days separated by years, depicting this rather weird era of human kind as vividly as we remember the sixties. It is perfect for a movie that unfortunately was never made.
Here is Micky in Ken Follett’s words, so much better than mine:[Early on, characters are in their youths]
[Same night — after a gory to-the-death fight between a pit bull and dozens of rats]
There was something sinister about Micky. He was unnervingly quiet, watchful and self-contained. He was not frank, he rarely showed hesitation, uncertainty, or vulnerability, and he never revealed anything of his soul — if he had one. Hugh did not trust him.
[Towards the end]
April’s eyes were sparkling as she looked up at Tonio, a man—she thought—who could afford to lose ten guineas in a bet. Micky looked more closely at Tonio and saw in his face a hint of panic. I don’t believe he can afford to lose ten guineas, Micky thought.
Micky collected his winnings from the bookmaker: five shillings. He had made a profit on the evening already. But he had a feeling that what he had learned about Tonio could in the end be worth a great deal more.
IT WAS MICKY who had most disgusted Hugh. Throughout the contest, Micky had been laughing hysterically. At first Hugh could not think why that laughter sounded so chillingly familiar. Then he remembered Micky’s laughing just the same way when Edward threw Peter Middleton’s clothes into the swimming hole. It was an unpleasant reminder of a grim memory.
Augusta felt close to tears. They sat looking at each other, thinking about what they had done, and why.
Edward said: “For nearly twenty-five years we’ve treated him as a member of the family. And he’s a monster.”
A monster, Augusta thought. It was true.
And yet she loved him. Even if he had killed three people, she loved Micky Miranda. Despite the way he had deceived her, she knew that if he walked into the room at this moment she would long to take him in her arms.
She looked at her son. Reading his face, she saw he felt the same way. She had known it in her heart but now her mind acknowledged it.
Edward loved Micky too.
He shrugged and did not answer. He did not want to talk to her. He had very little interest in women for their own sake. The sexual act itself was a humdrum mechanical process. What he liked about sex was the power it gave him. Women and men had fallen in love with him and he never tired of using their infatuation to control, exploit and humiliate them. Even his youthful passion for Augusta Pilaster had been in part the desire to tame and ride a spirited wild mare.
From that point of view, Henrietta offered him nothing: it was no challenge to control her, she had nothing worth exploiting her for, and there was no satisfaction in humiliating someone as low down on the scale as a prostitute. So he smoked his cigar and worried about whether Edward would come.
Henrietta immediately got up from the sofa and knelt in front of him. Micky watched Edward. Desire flickered in his eyes, but then he glowered obstinately and looked away.
In desperation Micky played his last card.
“Leave us, Henrietta,” he said.
She looked startled, but she got up and went out.
Edward stared at Micky. “Why did you do that?” he said.
“What do we need her for?” Micky replied. He stepped closer to the sofa, so that his groin was just inches from Edward’s face. He put out a tentative hand, touched Edward’s head, and gently stroked his hair. Edward did not move.
Micky said: “We’re better off without her . . . aren’t we?”
Edward swallowed hard and said nothing.
“Aren’t we?” Micky persisted.
At last Edward replied. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes.”
For days after I read this, the visions of this incredible character haunted me so constantly that I picked the book up and read it again. Knowing the ending was a small price to pay for the pleasure of savoring it without being in hurry to learn what would happen next — the early chapters are spiked with clues as to what is coming if you can slow down long enough to pay attention.
It’s an oldie but goodie, and a great read to suggest to anyone who should know about sociopaths but is not inclined to read non-fiction.