Prolific, versatile Graham (the Poldark series, etc.) now sends us a skin-deep yet deliciously engaging tale of London ambitions and passions between the world wars. The narrator is well-bred journalist Bill Grant, but the focus most of the way through is on Bill's best chum since prep-school days--Paul Stafford, a slow boy from a poor family who happens to have an enormous gift for drawing, a gift that Paul (though he studies with an idealistic teacher) soon parlays into chi-chi success as a fashionable London portrait painter. To Bill's displeasure, artist Paul seems totally satisfied with this libertine, sell-out lifestyle. . . until, inspired by a trip to Paris, Paul paints a thoroughly unflattering, Roualt-ish portrait of his former (married) mistress and mentor, a leader of the Noel-Cowardy fast set; she, of course, is furious--especially after Paul exhibits the picture alongside his studies of history's famed courtesans--and sues for libel (superb courtroom action). And after losing the case in gentlemanly fashion, Paul surprises Bill by announcing his engagement to brainy, un-pretty Holly Lynn (whom he met on a disastrous ocean-travel expedition with Bill); not only is Paul still legally wed to a swank, twitchy painter named Olive, but the sloppy, academic Lynns (an eccentric mÃ‰nage sketched with affectionate wit) are hardly the sort for the bun vivant artist. Nevertheless, Paul and Holly are determined, Bill helps to convince Olive (his one-night lover) to give Paul a divorce, and the newlyweds take off to a truly rural existence--where Paul turns his back on fortune and struggles to find a genuine style of his own. (The ""merciless ladies"" are success and failure.) But there's a villain lurking: Money. And a villainess: Olive, whose vicious alimony demands are driving dedicated Paul into debt and sickness. So it's valiant, rather dim Bill to the rescue: he'll eventually try to get Olive into a sexually compromised, alimonycanceling position--and he'll wind up an unintentional murderer. Chic melodrama? Perhaps. But also social comedy. And all of it played so briskly and with such unforced stylishness that you'll never stop to put a label on it. Familiar themes twirled into that genuine rarity: a slim, sure novel that leaves you yearning to find out more about what happened to its tremendously likable characters.