The Legal Fiction Genre
With its famous trial scene on which the plot hinges, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice could be regarded as a forerunner, of both the legal fiction and the financial fiction genres, though exhibiting rather greater eloquence than most works in these categories! (However nobody can live on a diet of caviar and champagne. More modest fare can be even more satisfying in its own way). Dante’s Divine Comedy devotes significant attention to usury and counterfeiting. Dante was himself the son of a banker or money-changer, the brother-in-law of a moneylender. A loan, secured on the basis of a signature of dubious legality, is central to the plot of the Doll’s House by Ibsen, a play that was immensely controversial when it was first performed.
Although The Firm falls squarely in the tradition of John Grisham’s legal thrillers, money laundering is central to the business of the firm in question, as the newly-recruited lawyer who is the main character of the novel eventually discovers but not before he is up to his neck in danger. Therefore The Firm can definitely be regarded as a financial thriller, but it is interesting to compare it with works written by novelists whose background is in banking. Fortunemagazine, in a review of the first novel by Linda Davies wrote “if John Grisham … were female and British and attuned to the high-tech tintinnabulation of currencies changing hands around the world, he might write a twisty thriller such as Nest of Vipers.” Naturally, as a trained lawyer himself, Grisham approaches money laundering from the perspective of a lawyer trying to untangle a maze of companies set up to facilitate the process rather than that of a banker trying to detect suspicious transactions.
Another work by Grisham relevant to this subject is The Runaway Jury in which some stock transactions form a major element of the plot.
Brad Meltzer is another American lawyer who turned to writing legal thrillers, usually ones having a strong connection with politics. The Tenth Justice, his first published book, came out in 1997. His fourth novel, The Millionaires, is the story of two brothers who work for a private bank. A secret, abandoned account containing three million dollars provides them with the key to a new life – but then they discover the invisible strings that were attached to the account.
The Mystery Genre
It is impossible to draw a strict dividing line between mainstream thrillers and works in the mystery genre. Normally a certain degree of mystery is inevitable in any plot having a great deal of suspense and that is true of many modern financial thrillers. The main distinction is probably that in novels in the mystery category the identity of the wrong-doers is usually concealed until near the end of the story. However, many thrillers have twists in their plots which re-introduce an element of mystery even though the identity of the villains is known to the reader.
Emma Lathen is the pseudonym used by two American authors, Mary J. Latsis and the late Martha Henissart, for books featuring a Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher, as an amateur detective whose special knowledge of the financial world gives him an advantage over professional police officers. Starting with Banking on Death in 1961 and continuing up to the mid-1990s Latsis and Henissart produced a series of over 20 novels in which Thatcher was the main character. Writing under the name R.B. Dominic they also produced a separate series of novels featuring an Ohio Congressman Ben Safford, but the Lathen series is better known. Latsis had worked as an economist for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation until 1969, eight years after their first novel was published, and Henissart had worked in the field of corporate finance and banking until 1973. Consequently the two women were well-qualified to write mysteries set in the financial world. In 1967 they won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award and in 1983 they received the Mystery Writers of America Ellery Queen award.
A work which undoubtedly belongs to both the thriller and the mystery categories is Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, set in Copenhagen and Greenland, which won international renown for the Danish author, Peter Høeg, after it appeared in English as Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. The main connection between Høeg’s novel and financial thrillers is the chapter set in the casino which is used for money laundering by, among others the criminals involved in drug trafficking, a minor but recurring theme in the book. Commerce also figures fairly prominently in some early chapters in the book in connection with a Greenland mining company with its headquarters in Denmark, and in a later chapter, a Danish shipping firm.
The activities of spies and secret agents play a key role in many of the mainstream financial thrillers discussed earlier, particularly those of Stephen Frey, David Ignatius, Linda Davies and Peter Tasker. The works of Frey, Ignatius and Tasker tend to deal with the staple themes of the spy thriller, e.g. terrorism and potential conflicts between nations, while Davies focuses more on the newer , sometimes ambivalent roles of the security services in tackling international crimes such as money laundering and drug trafficking, and the connections between the security services and the financial world. In 1998 the disaffected former British secret agent Richard Tomlinson, alleged that MI6 had a spy in the Bundesbank, a claim that could almost have come from the pages of Nest of Vipers!
Financial institutions figure strongly in some works writers who are normally thought of as writers of orthodox spy thrillers.
Many people are aware of the fact that Ian Fleming worked for British intelligence during World War II and that his experiences provided the inspiration for his spy thrillers. However not many know that he was the grandson of a wealthy Scottish banker Robert Fleming, and that for four years prior to the warIan Fleming himself worked as a banker and stockbroker in London. Before that he had been a journalist in Moscow and after the war he was the foreign manager of Kemsley Newspapers until 1959. Probably many more people today are familiar with Goldfinger, one of his classic James Bond adventures, from the film than from the original novel and will know how Bond saves Fort Knox, the home of most of the US gold reserves, from the plot hatched by Auric Goldfinger, the world’s cleverest and richest criminal.
John le Carré
John le Carré, the pseudonym of David Cornwell, is one of the world’s best known authors of spy fiction. After taking a first in modern languages at Cambridge and a he worked for for the British intelligence services and then after a short spell teaching at Eton, started working for the Foreign Office in a capacity which is widely believed to have included more intelligence work. His first novel, Call for the Dead was published in 1961 and following the success of his third, The Spy who Came in from the Cold, in 1963 he decided to become a full-time writer and over the course of three decades he produced a string of successful novels with the Cold War as a background. With the collapse of Communism le Carré, like other spy fiction authors, had to find a somewhat different theme. In Single and Single published in 1999, financiers are one of the main destabilising forces threatening poorer nations and MI5, the SAS, GCHQ and the customs service work together to combat the menace. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, had been a con-man with convictions for fraud and his character inspired one of le Carré’s previous books, A Perfect Spy, so perhaps it is not surprising that le Carré should write a spy thriller that is also a financial thriller.
Tom Clancy, who has some claims to have originated the literary genre now known as the techno-thriller has a certain connection with the financial world since he worked as an insurance broker in Maryland. His plots generally deal with the big issues of global politics but finance also plays a major role in Debt of Honor, written at a time of increasing anxiety in the US about Japanese-American economic competition, the weaknesses of America’s financial system, and the dangers of cutbacks in the American armed services. The Japanese secretly unleash a computer virus on the New York stock exchange with the aim of destroying American and European financial markets. This turns out to be an act of war. The theme of a resurgent, nationalist Japan is also one that occurs in Peter Tasker’s first novel, Silent Thunder.
Economic warfare actually has a long history. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s secretary of state and spymaster, cornered large numbers of bills drawn on Genoan banks in order to delay the build up of resources to equip the Spanish Armada which set sail against England in 1588.
Rafael Sabatini was born in Jesi, central Italy in 1875. When he was 17 he moved to England where he wrote many works of historical fiction. His first was written in 1902 but it was not until 1921 with the publication of Scaramouche, a novel about the French Revolution, that he attained great success. His last novel was the Gamester came out in 1949, the year before his death. It is about John Law, the Scottish adventurer and economist who fled to Amsterdam after killing a man in a duel. In Amsterdam he studied he studied the principles of banking and 20 years later in 1715, after many further travels, he got his great chance when the French regent, the Duke of Orleans turned to him in desperation as French public finance was in a parlous state after the wars and extravagance of Louis XIV. John Law created the first public bank in France which was at first a great success. However Law’s enemies managed to pin the blame for the collapse of the Mississippi Bubble in 1720 on him and he was dismissed from his post, eventually dying in poverty in Venice.
Ken Follett’s Dangerous Fortune, discussed in the section of this guide on novelists who were journalists is a work of financial fiction set in the Victorian period. It is worth noting that although Dangerous Fortune is a work of fiction, the plot involves a British bank which gets into difficulties because of its investments in Latin America and, in actual fact, one famous British bank, namely Barings, did come within 24 hours of bankruptcy only to be saved by the Bank of England and other leading City of London banks so that it survived for another century, before being brought down by Nick Leeson in a banking scandal which reverberated around the world and coincided with the emergence of some of the banker novelists described in this guide.
Susan Howatch, a British author, known for her family sagas and her novels about the Church of England in the 20th century, was originally a lawyer. A characteristic feature of her family sagas is that they deal with well-known historical events transposed to an utterly different setting. In the case of The Rich Are Different and Sins of the Fathers the setting is Wall Street in the period 1922-68, but the main characters are Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar. Howatch’s legal background is reflected in her treatment of topics such as the Glass-Steagall Banking Act.
Lindsey Davis is best known for her series of mystery novels set in Ancient Rome. Ode to a Banker is the 12th featuring the sleuth Marcus Didius Falco. Aurelius Chrysippus, a wealthy Athenian banker and patron to a group of writers is found dead in a library – and one of the suspects is Falco himself! Ode to a Banker is a reminder of the fact that the history of banking stretches back to ancient times.
First published in 1999, Tulip Fever, is a story of desire and deception set in the household of a tulip speculator in Amsterdam in the 1630s. Financial wrong-doing in 17th century Holland was also the subject of Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, which is discussed in the section covering the 17th Century to the Victorian Era.
David Liss was completing a doctoral dissertation in the department of English at Columbia University, on how the mid-eighteenth-century British novel reflects and shapes the emergence of the modern idea of personal finance, when his first novel was published. He has given numerous conference papers on his research and has published on Henry James. A Conspiracy of Paper, his first novel published in both the U.S. and in Great Britain in 2000, is a historical thriller set in London of 1719 and concerns the rivalries between the South Sea Company and the Bank of England on the eve of the South Sea Bubble. His second novel, The Coffee Trader, published in 2003, is also a historical financial thriller. It is set in the Amsterdam of the 1690s, the city with the world’s largest stock exchange, and deals with the struggle to control the market for a new commodity – coffee.
Captain Jack Aubrey the hero of Patrick O’Brian‘s works of nautical fiction set in the Napoleonic Wars is modelled on Lord Cochrane whose fame as a naval commander during that period was second only to that of Nelson. It was not only Thomas Cochrane’s battles that provided inspiration for O’Brian but also a more controversial episode in the seaman’s life when he was found guilty, probably unjustly, of a stock exchange fraud. In The Reverse of the MedalO’Brian suffers a similar fate. After the financial scandal Cochrane went to Latin America where he took charge first of the Chilean navy and then the Brazilian navy during the wars of liberation against Spain and Portugal.
Sheila O’Flanagan started her career with the Central Bank of Ireland and later moved to NCB Stockbrokers, also in Dublin, where since 1994 she has been a bonds trader. She also writes a column on financial topics for the Irish Times. Her first novel, Dreaming of a Stranger straddles the financial and non-financial worlds, and she has followed that up with other works in the romantic fiction genre.