In one of my favourite encounters with Robert Maxwell, he never actually turned up — despite days of promises that he would. At that time a City analyst, I was travelling with half a dozen others to New York see two US companies that the publishing tycoon had bought at the end of 1988. We were directed to go on Maxwell’s private plane, which stopped to refuel twice and took three times as long as a commercial flight to cross the Atlantic.

At 4am, we were deposited on the tarmac in a dark corner of Newark airport to face a lone immigration official taken aback by our unexpected arrival. Getting through, we turned around to see our escort, Peter Jay — Maxwell’s chief of staff and a last-minute stand-in for his unpredictable boss — still struggling to secure entry to America, pleading, “But I used to be the British ambassador to the US.”

That trip captured the humiliation inescapable for those working for Maxwell. But the real significance was that the debt incurred for those two acquisitions was the cause of the Maxwell empire’s collapse three years later. The sums were small by today’s standards — $2.6bn in a hostile bid for the US publisher Macmillan; $750m for Official Airline Guides — but enough to bring down his web of 800 companies, most privately held and many based in Liechtenstein, a construction that held public scrutiny at bay for years.

He had been scrambling for cash to service the debt, but also secretly to buy shares to prop up the stock prices of his public companies, as shares were the banks’ security for the loans. The collapse revealed that Maxwell had raided the cash in his companies’ bank accounts and “borrowed” the shares in their pension funds — including those of Mirror Group Newspapers.

John Preston’s book Fall, a recounting of the life of one of the most extraordinary figures in British corporate life, is timely. Not for the obvious reason that Maxwell’s youngest daughter Ghislaine is now in jail in New York, charged with procuring girls for sex with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein (which she denies). As Preston recounts, while she was always the pretty, adored youngest child, she was also often overlooked in the commotion of her parents’ lives. She apparently once stood in front of them to declare: “I exist.”

The more timely reason is that now, almost 30 years since Maxwell died at sea in unexplained circumstances, it is possible to look back on his story and the fraud as a great, sweeping whole, a bridge from the second world war to the last years of the media barons before the internet began. The later-stage Maxwell, with his booming voice and imposing presence, could not look less like the ascetic, T-shirt-wearing geek-titans of today. Back then, newspapers still boasted big print circulations, which in turn brought influence and power.

Maxwell was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in a town that was then in Czechoslovakia, now in Ukraine. His parents, three siblings and grandfather were gassed or shot in Auschwitz; his son Ian once found him crouched close up to a TV set showing a grainy newsreel about the camp, saying, “I’m looking to see if I can spot my parents.”

The privations and suffering of childhood fuelled his later drive and appetite. (He would break the padlock that his wife had attached to the pantry to raid it, one night eating, she recalled, “a pound of cheese, a jar of peanut butter, two jars of caviar, a loaf of bread and a whole chicken in one go”.). He thrived in the chaos of the war and its aftermath, and with real genius spotted the potential of the scientific journals, written but unpublished during the war, which became his first major business, Pergamon Press.

Despite the 1971 verdict of Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) that he was not “a person who can be relied on” to run a public company, he managed to accumulate an astonishing array of businesses, from printing works to a football club. But it stung that the “Max Factor” — as the prospect of dealing with him began to be known — meant that Rupert Murdoch beat him repeatedly in the quest for prized newspaper titles. In 1984, Maxwell finally triumphed when he managed to buy the mass-market Daily Mirror — calling an instant board meeting at 1am when the sale went through.

Preston tells the story well. He is the author of A Very English Scandal, the story of the disgraced Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe and the basis of a successful television drama, and there is a sense that this book is intended as the basis for another. Cheerfully recounting previously reported anecdotes, its strength is in telling the grand sweep of an extraordinary life. In this tale of people who had a knack for a memorable phrase, Maxwell’s wife Betty emerges as the one with a real gift. When the DTI in 1971 delivered its too-memorable judgment, she wrote to him: “If you feel that we must . . . live elsewhere or emigrate to China or live underground or in a treetop, I am game.”

Sometimes Preston’s tale is too tidy. He puts too much weight on Maxwell’s rivalry with Murdoch as the motivation for the calamitous US takeovers, and is too neat about claiming a convergence of threats (such as disclosures of bank share sales) on the day Maxwell died in discussing whether these might have prompted suicide.

Despite the book’s subtitle, it also conveys little suspense. It barely discusses the fraud itself: the role of his two youngest sons Kevin and Ian, who were charged and acquitted; how it happened so quickly (most of it in the final year); why those working for Maxwell were drawn into doing or tolerating things that were unwise or illegal. That is the real, still compelling and still relevant mystery. Nor does it discuss the impact — that public outcry forced banks to return much of the missing pension wealth and protections for the assets in pension funds were then tightened.

Preston does, though, address the obvious lingering question; as The Sun headline put it, “Did he fall . . . Did he jump?” He leans, just, towards the second. The family does not agree, arguing that Maxwell was not the type to contemplate suicide, but I think Preston’s inclination is right. On the deck of his yacht, circling the Canary Islands in the middle of the night, Maxwell knew that his life’s work would collapse within weeks. For all the humiliation he heaped on others, that was not a prospect he could bear.

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, by John Preston, Viking, RRP£18.99, 352 pages

Bronwen Maddox is director of the Institute for Government, and a former FT journalist who led the FT’s award-winning Maxwell investigation team in 1991-92

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café