The world of finance becomes a mainstream topic in the era of “Greed is Good,” Junk Bonds, Leveraged Buy-Outs, the Yuppies etc.
In the late 1960s the idea of using fiction as a means of teaching economic theory was revived by a pair of academics writing under the pseudonym ofMarshall Jevons. However, it was not until the 1980s that the world of finance really began to impinge on the public imagination. The 1980s was the get rich quick decade or the era of Junk Bonds, Leveraged Buy-Outs, and Greed is Good and the Yuppie. For an entertaining description of what it was like to be an investment banker in that period see Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, who has also written a more general, less autobiographical account of those times, The Money Culture. The 1980s and early 1990s also saw the appearance of financial novels by authors with a background in journalism or academics who were known as commentators on economic and social problems, and critics of the excesses of the financial world, or who used fiction for didactic purposes.
The novel most commonly associated with that period was written by someone who had already made his reputation as a journalist who chronicled some of the defining features of the America of the 60s and 70s – Tom Wolfe. The pioneer of the new journalism evidently felt the need for a broader canvass on which to depict the excesses of the 1980s, not just on Wall Street but also in politics, life styles, and racial conflict. Since The Bonfire of the Vanitiescharting the downfall of a bond trader appeared in 1987, the year of the Great Crash, it has served as a benchmark for not only other satirical novels, but also for various factual accounts of that period, including Liar’s Poker mentioned above. Bonfire of the Vanities was made into a movie released in 1990. After a gap of over a decade Wolfe published his second novel A Man in Full in 1998. It is set in Atlanta and bankers are among the people featuring in the subplots.
Like Tom Wolfe, Jay McInerney was originally a journalist who turned to writing fiction, first achieving success in 1984 with Bright Lights, Big City. In 1992 his Brightness Falls came out. The story centres on a corporate takeover in the publishing industry and has been compared with Bonfire of the Vanities.
John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)
The Canadian born Galbraith was one of America’s most distinguished economists and also had a varied career outside academic life having been the editor of Fortune Magazine from 1943-1948, and US ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963. Galbraith became an eloquent critic of the affluent society, even though its excesses in the 1950s were not nearly as marked as those of the 1980s. In addition to numerous books on economics he has also written a couple of novels. The first The Triumph published in 1968 has the subtitle a novel of modern diplomacy, a field in which Galbraith had practical experience but it is set in central America not in India. His second novel, A Tenured Professor is set in a milieu in which Galbraith was even more at home. The principal character is a Harvard professor of economics, as was the author, who creates an economic forecasting model that identifies irrational speculation enabling him to profit from the folly of others.
The folly of speculators was a recurring theme some of Galbraith’s writings on economics including The Great Crash: 1929, first published in 1955, and A Short History of Financial Euphoria which came out in 1990, the year in which his novel about speculation also appeared.
Marshall Jevons is the pseudonym adopted by a pair of American professors of economics, William Breit of Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, and Kenneth G. Elzinga of the University of Virginia. Their pen-name is derived from the surnames of two great Victorian economists, Alfred Marshall and William Stanley Jevons. (Marshall remained productive almost up until his death in 1924 but his best-known work belongs to the Victorian age). Breit and Elzinga have produced three mystery novels featuring the sleuth Henry Spearman, a Harvard economist who uses economic analysis to solve crimes. The first was Murder At The Margin in 1978 (revised in 1993), followed by The Fatal Equilibrium in 1986 and A Deadly Indifference in 1995. According to a reviewer writing in the Wall Street Journal “if there is a more painless way to learn economic principles, scientists must have recently discovered how to implant them in ice cream.”
D. Larry Crumbley, KPMG Peat Marwick Professor of Accounting at Louisiana State University is another academic who has written novels. Among his specialisms is forensic accounting or the detection of fraud and he is the author of a paper on forensic accountants appearing in the literature. He has also written a series of educational novels on this theme with the aim of presenting technical information in a way that facilitates learning and infuses student enthusiasm. One of these, Costly Reflections in a Midas Mirror, was written jointly with Dana A. Forgione who is also a university lecturer in accounting. In his use of fiction for didactic purposes Crumbley, like the Marshall Jevons duo, William Breit and Kenneth G. Elzinga, could be compared with Harriet Martineau, the 19th century writer who used fiction for disseminating knowledge of the principles of economics. Crumbley, with two co-authors, has also written a novel for explaining the concepts of chemistry.
Alexander Davidson is a leading British financial journalist who, in addition to writing for the national press, is the author of a number of factual books dealing with investment and a couple of novels. His first book, The City Share Pushers, highlighted insider trading and other disreputable practices and was credited with helping to change the way in which parts of the City of London work. It formed the basis of a Channel 4 television documentary. He maintains a website on Flexible Investment Strategies. His first novel, The Survivors, published in 1990, dealt with how it was possible to make millions out of the stock market in just six months by a means of a scam that had actually been used. His second novel, Stock Market Rollercoaster was published in 2001. The main character is a former teacher who joins a share dealing firm and rises from naïve trainee to worldly-wise dealer fighting to survive on the cut-throat main dealing floor. The book explains how a securities business operates, and is informative reading for anyone wanting to know how, and how not to, deal on the international stock markets.
Ken Follett, was a friend of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and along with his wife Barbara (now a Labour MP) one of the earliest supporters of “New Labour”, although he later critised some of Blair’s policies. Follet, like Wolfe and McInerney, is another novelist with a background in journalism. He started his journalistic career in his native Wales on the staff of the South Wales Echo before moving to London to join the Evening News. He began writing fiction in the mid-1970s under the pseudonym “Zachary Stone” but, by his own admission, with little success. One of his early novels was Paper Money first published in 1977 and re-published ten years later after he had achieved success with novels using his real name. In the introduction to the new edition Follett wrote that he was no longer so sure of the links between crime, high finance and journalism as he was when he wrote the book but “it presents a detailed picture of the London that I knew in the seventies, with its policemen and crooks, bankers and call girls, reporters and politicians, its shops and its slums, its roads and its river.”
In 1993 he made another venture financial fiction with A Dangerous Fortune set not in the contemporary period but a century earlier, in Victorian England. The murder of a school boy in 1866 starts a chain of events leading to the collapse of a leading British bank. For three decades the secret of how the boy died is kept and new fortunes are made, despite risky investments in Latin America, but eventually the chickens come home to roost.
David Ignatius is the business editor of The Washington Post where he has worked since 1986, having spent the previous 10 years as a journalist withThe Wall Street Journal. Since the late 80s he has managed to combine writing novels with his other career and is the author of three spy thrillers dealing with relations between the US and the Middle East, an area he had worked in as a journalist, as well as a a couple of other novels. The financial world is central to the plot of one of his spy thrillers, The Bank of Fear, first published in 1994. In some ways Ignatius has more in common with the banker-novelists of the next section than the others on this page. His website has a section on the relationship between fact and fiction in his work.
John Harman was born in London and after graduating in history from Durham he became a journalist working first for Scottish TV and then newspapers in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Teeside before joining the Times. In the early ’80s he formed his own film production company which he sold a few years later in order to concentrate on his writing. His first book, Money for Nothing, telling the story of a fraud that leads to the bankruptcy of a major company, a revolution in a British protectorate, the killing of a platoon of British soldiers and the jailing of an innocent man, was published in 1991. Harman followed up that success with other tales of financial wrong-doing: The Bottom Line, Called to Account and Dangerous Assets. John Harman also writes film and television scripts.
Ethan Cooper, a New York City journalist with over 20 years in the trade publishing profession, produced his first novel in the year 2000. In Control is set in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and is narrated by Harry Kramer, the CEO of a major American bank. Kramer has climbed the greasy pole to the top of his profession, and fully intends to stay there and maintain the prestige in the community that goes with his position. However, after pushing through a risky business his bank is overextended in the property market with the result that Kramer discovers the consequences of his need to be in control. The book is a realistic, psychological drama providing fascinating insights into the thought processes of the main character, a master of the arts of internal company politics.
Thomas M. Sipos
Thomas M. Sipos, the son of Hungarian refugees from Communism, was born in New York. Manhattan Sharks, his second novel, is a satire of aspiring yuppies in 1980s New York. The hero, Henry Willoughby, is one of the legions of faceless people, such as secretaries and clerks, who keep the wheels of commerce turning. But despite not fitting the yuppie mold he still seeks happiness and status and meaning through his job, clothing and political identity.Nanhatten Sharks was inspired by the author’s experiences as a a TV research analyst. Sipos’ first book, Vampire Nation, also a black comedy, is about Communism, and draws on both the author’s historical readings and his childhood visits to Communist Transylvania, where he still has relatives.
Originally a professional actress and singer,Antonia Swinson turned to journalism and has written for a wide range of national newspapers, from the Mail On Sunday to the Financial Times and now writes a regular satirical column on the money worries of the middle classes for Scotland On Sunday. Since 1993 she has also been a novelist. Her third book, The Love Child, utilises the secret life of Anthony Trollope as a backdrop and although it is a novel Swinson reveals in it previously undiscovered information about real financial scandals involving the famous Victorian novelist.
James R. Cook
Jim Cook is the president of the Investment Rarities, a firm that specialises in selling gold and silver, which he argues through the medium of his appropriately titled Gloom and Doom Reports provide a safer home for savings than the stocks and shares. To popularise his views on economics he wrote the novel Full Faith and Credit which outlines a scenario for a future financial catastrophe with massive derivatives defaults and bank collapses leading to the US government defaulting on its debts. However, although most investors are wiped out one man makes a multi-billion dollar fortune.
One of the longest running financial scams of recent decades is the Nigerian 419 scam, which usually involves an unsolicited fax message or letter requesting assistance in transferring money out of Nigeria in return for which a share of the money is promised. Such frauds have been going on since the 1980s and the total amount stolen was estimated to have reached $5 billion by the year 2000. Brian Wizard, an American author, artist and Vietnam War veteran, set out to expose the fraudsters and has written a novel, Game Over based on the results of his investigations.
Derrick Niederman, is a mathematician turned securities analyst and an author of a number of books on investing. A Killing on Wall Street first published in the United States and Great Britain in 2000, is an unusual book in that it is intended to be both a guide to investing, like his non-fiction work, and also a murder mystery. The story is set at the height of the Dot.com or Internet stockmarket bubble in February to March 2000. The hero, Cliff Cavanaugh, having been burned out on Wall Street, left a high-powered investment firm to work at home as a day-trader and he uses his financial expertise to solve the mystery of the murder of an affluent portfolio manager.
Helen Dunne, a journalist on the Daily Telegraph, writes the newspaper’s weekly Trixie Trader column featuring the diary of a female investment banker, Trixie Thompson-Smythe, who lives life in the fast-lane and has a suitably ostentatious lifestyle. Trixie Trader is also the title of the novel Dunne wrote in 2001 as a humorous account of life in the City of London.
James Harland is the pseudonym adopted by a well-known financial journalist who has worked on both newspapers and television. His first novel, theMonth of the Leopard was published by Simon & Schuster in Britain in June 2001. The chief protagonist, Tom is a financial trader whose Estonian wife, Tatyana, disappears without warning. His efforts to find her lead him to the Leopard Fund, and with the help of Sarah, a financial analyst who has good reasons for disliking that organisation, he uncovers a plot to destroy the world’s currencies. Harland has said the inspiration for his thriller came partly from cases of money laundering from the Soviet Union before the regime collapsed, and partly from events which illustrated the power of hedge funds, e.g. Black Wednesday when George Soros made a billion dollars legally by forcing the pound out of the European exchange rate mechanism in 1992, and the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998 which threatened the stability of the world financial system.
Roel Janssen is the financial editor of NRC Handelsblad, one of the leading newspapers in the Netherlands. He is also the author of two financial thrillers in Dutch dealing with European monetary integration. The first was the De Struisvogel-code (The Ostrich Code), published in 1997, and he followed this up with Het Mercator Complot (The Mercator Conspiracy) in 2000 which is set at the time of the introduction of the Euro in 2002. An investigation of counterfeit Euro notes leads to the unravelling of a conspiracy involving tax evasion and money laundering.
Don DeLillo, like Tom Wolfe, Jay McInerney, is a literary American novelist. He is of Italian origin and was born in New York in 1936. After studies at Fordham he worked as an advertising copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather as an advertising copywriter but left when he was 28 in order to complete Americana, his first novel. However, despite praise from critics, it was not until 9th novel, White Noise was published that he obtained substantial commercial success. His 13th novel, Cosmopolis, published in 2003, has a financial theme. Cosmopolis follows the last day in the life of Eric Packer, a multi-billionaire currency trader.
Jane Smiley was born in Los Angeles and grew up St Louis, Missouri. She gained a B.A. from Vassar College and, in 1978, a Ph.D. from University of Iowa where she taught for a while. One of her novels, A Thousand Acres, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. Another, Horse Heaven, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2000. Good Faith, published in 2003, is set against the background of the Savings and Loan crisis that struck America in the 1980s after deregulation transformed previously cautious and respectable mortgage lending institutions into risk taking and, in some cases, unprincipled ones.
Matthew Lee is a campaigning lawyer who has been heavily involved in community battles over issues such as branch closures, redlining and predatory lending in the South Bronx of New York City. In his novel Predatory Bender: a story of subprime finance, he tackles a problem that has been a bane of human-kind at least since the time of Moses, hence the prohibition of usury in the Old Testament and, more recently, the Koran. The novel draws on Lee’s years of experience as a campaigner and its message is reinforced by a factual 90 page afterward entitled Predatory Lending: toxic credit in the global inner city. The book is published by Inner City Press, a non-profit community, consumers’ and civil rights organization headquartered in the South Bronx of New York City. More information about its campaigning activities is available at the Inner City Press website.
David Boyle is well known for his writings on money, in particular local or complementary currencies. More recently, in 2010, he has turned to fiction for getting his message across. Over a century ago L. Frank Baum wrote the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a well-known story for children and, today, an even better known and much loved film. Although it is by no means obvious to most readers or viewers of the film, it is thought that Baum meant his story not simply as an entertaining tale but also as a satire on the contemporary arguments over the merits of the gold standard as opposed to bimetalism. David Boyle was inspired to write a tale that would “a new Wizard of Oz for the age of derivatives and Goldman Sachs.” The result, The Wizard is the story of Dottie and her dog Lynton who set off on a journey to Browntown in search of answers …