Joel Glenn Brenner,

The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars

, Random House, 1999, 336 pages (Hardcover, $25.95)

If you thought

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,

Roald Dahl's tale about Willy Wonka, showed the candy industry at its most bizarre, think again: When it comes to chocolate, truth really is stranger than fiction.

In

The Emperors of Chocolate

, Joel Glenn Brenner opens the gates on two of the sweetest names in the business:

Hershey Foods

(HSY) - Get Report

and privately held

Mars

, which for the past 30 years have together had eight of the 10 top-selling candy bars in the U.S. Given unprecedented access to the famously publicity-shy Mars, Brenner takes a behind-the-scenes look at the companies and the industry they helped create. The result is as fun to read for the gossipy tidbits as for the subject matter.

Brenner gives a comprehensive history of the companies beginning with the births of the two chocolate scions:

Milton Hershey

, in 1857, who was raised in a Mennonite community and later apprenticed with a local confectioner, and

Frank Mars

, in 1883, whose childhood polio kept him hanging around the kitchen with his mother, sparking his early obsession with candy.

From these beginnings sprang the now-mammoth companies that bear their names, and Brenner chronicles their rise with a heavy emphasis on their unique corporate cultures. Mars, for example, is still managed and dominated by the Mars family. Their tastes prevail: Peanut butter products have never been a company mainstay because the Mars family doesn't like the flavor. Instead, they've spent years trying to develop the perfect hazelnut candy, even though none has proved a big sales success.

And while Mars pays the highest salaries in the chocolate business, according to Brenner, executives also have had to withstand the exacting standards and furious tempers of Mars family executives -- first Frank's son Forrest and later, his sons Forrest Jr. and John. Forrest Sr. once called a manager in the middle of the night, having bought a pack of M&Ms in Los Angeles and found a defect in the printed logo on the candies. Forrest was also known for personally tasting Mars' Kal Kan pet food and comparing it with rival brands, and for writing "failed" in red ink across unmet sales goals -- and posting them in the men's room.

Hershey, meantime, was also anything but a run-of-the-mill executive. After selling his original caramel business, Milton Hershey turned to chocolate and created a utopian model town around his factory, including a school for poor orphans that produced a handful of Hershey executives (the school is now one of the richest private educational institutions in the U.S.). In his later days, Milton turned to juicing and other less successful products, including soap made of cocoa butter that he claimed had curative powers when applied to wounds.

Though Hershey and Mars are now rivals, in the early years they had a close business relationship, with Hershey doing the coating for Mars candy bars. But when Forrest took over in 1964, he laid plans to end the contracting out of the company's manufacturing and invested in his own factories. Brenner describes the subsequent rivalry, with each company developing products or making acquisitions that temporarily leapfrog it in front of its rival.

One famous marketing example: Mars blows off an invitation to promote its M&M candies in a new science fiction movie, and Hershey takes a risk and uses the same promotion in an attempt to spark sales of its new product, Reese's Pieces. The movie?

E.T.

, of course. Sales of Reese's Pieces tripled within two weeks of the movie's release.

As a fascinating sideline to the business struggle between the two companies, Brenner sprinkles the book with the role chocolate has played in wars, from the first candy bar in World War I to scrambles over market share in the Gulf War.

Their spats over wartime publicity and market share become an all-too-obvious metaphor for their peacetime business struggles, raising the question: Isn't the candy business, with its focus on all things sweet and happy, supposed to be fun?

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