18 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 54

Christopher Howse

I gingerly stuck my nose into Lord Acton by Roland Hill (Yale, £25), being suspicious of the bee in the historian's bonnet about power, which made him bend over so far backwards to be fair to the enemies of his own Church that he ended up accusing St Charles Borromeo and St Pius V of being assassins. Silly man.

Though Mr Hill implicitly assumes that Acton's outlook was right, his own burrow- ing into archives has been so thorough and the pickings so cleverly arranged that Acton as library builder, wronged husband, intrepid meddler in Vatican affairs, sweet- toothed Cambridge don and simple wor- shipper grows in depth in a narrative that has the tension of a novel. Among many oddities perhaps the weirdest is that Acton's grandfather married at the age of 64 his own 14-year-old niece, and Emma Hamilton signed the marriage certificate.

Duleep Singh, the man who gave Queen Victoria the Koh-i-Noor diamond and his Punjab princedom, became a Suffolk squire, slaughtering hundreds of game Bootees are out, Gran — can you knit kiln a little pair of trainers?' birds a day in season, before defecting to Russia. Christy Campbell, who always writes well, follows his mad-pinball trail (picking up a Fenian dynamiter on the way) in The Maharajah's Box (Harper- Collins, £19.99).

White Teeth, a novel by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99), is not worse than all other books, but is this year's flavour of bad, as is The Love Hexagon by William Sutcliffe (also Hamish Hamilton, £9.99), which is like stuff they put on telly at 10.30 pm.