Harper Collins, €27.40 (HB)

A motorbike flying over barbed wire, an erotic chess game, a mustang bouncing along the streets of San Francisco. For many people, Steve McQueen is more a vibe than a person - a series of images linked together in a string of classic 60's films. He died aged 50, having not made a major hit movie in six years but still one of the world's biggest stars and still the king of cool. But, unlike many of his peers in showbusiness, McQueen's demise was not some too-much-too-soon burnout, instead his terminal cancer (although he actually died from a heart attack) allowed him to make many postponed realisations about his life and make peace with the one person he had fought for so long: himself.

To those of us whose knowledge of McQueen stretches to his films, gazing at a poster on someone's wall or buying a pair of pants in a foolish attempt to think you could have an ounce of his charisma, Sandford's book will prove quite a revelation. McQueen may have been coolness incarnate, the man men wanted to be like and women wanted to be with (or vice versa) but the truth was far darker and troubled than even his most rebellious characters would suggest. "Most of my early memories," McQueen once said "are bloody". And in this book's finest section, the opening chapters, Sandford shows how the actor's greatest achievement was surviving a childhood which would have put most under.

Even by Depression standards, McQueen's upbringing was nauseatingly bleak. He never knew his father, while his alcoholic mother left him at his Great Uncle's farm and then sent for him when the mood took her. At one stage she was a prostitute and the 10-year-old boy would have to leave the bed he shared with her when the clients called. There were many men and beatings and the realisation at the earliest age that whatever lay ahead he was facing it alone. The outcast wasn't a role for McQueen - it was McQueen.

Reading with the page turning quality of the finest fiction, Sandford then charts McQueen from his redemption in reform school, through the two-bit acting gigs, the TV parts, the movies, the multi-million dollar movies and the three wives who got to know him as much as he would allow anyone. He was described as an "embarrassment of paradoxes" and Sandford vividly depicts the contradictions that drove McQueen.

He was famous for being tight with money, yet few knew of his generosity to organisations, orphanages and sick children around the world. He could eat in the finest restaurants but he preferred home "chow". He was "intellectually a stopped clock", yet his performances all had a profound impact – always asking for less lines in movies but more screentime. And while he extolled the virtues of married life he lived the most footloose of lifestyles – women, drugs, guns, paranoia and mood swings aplenty. As he said himself near the end "Seems I spent half my life getting into trouble and the other half trying to get out of it." After digesting this book and his attempts, it's unlikely you'll ever watch McQueen in the same way again.

Where Sandford loses credit is that it seems as if he too has also spent too long gazing at a poster of McQueen. He constantly re-hashes the actor's outsider quality, a fact that anyone who has seen his films is totally familiar with. But while that is this book's biggest failing, Sandford compensates with his ability to give you an essence of a person that towers above most celebrity biogs. Your love of Steve McQueen won't be any greater after reading this book, but your view of him will be tempered with lots of reality and an equal amount of respect.

Harry Guerin