Review: Financial whodunit clues into bankers

July 6, 2012

By Jeffrey Goldfarb
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

To fictionalize the Wall Street events of 2008 satisfyingly requires more than just borrowing from them. The real-life narrative was so spectacular and has been retold so often that engaging even a casual follower of financial news takes more than a little extra imagination. Go figure then that a fact-based chronicler of the times would be the one to accomplish the feat.

Imagine Goldman Sachs had merged with Lehman Brothers, stuffed it with surprising amounts of mortgage-related dreck as Merrill Lynch did to Bank of America – and then Lehman’s Dick Fuld confessed to killing Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein. A loose version of that story serves as the backdrop of the debut novel “A Fatal Debt,” by Financial Times columnist John Gapper. The mystery is fun but also isn’t entirely frivolous.

British Ben Cowper serves as the book’s clever device. He’s the New York psychiatrist protagonist who keeps readers at a relatively safe distance from the demimonde of billionaire bankers, even as he is enveloped by the trappings of Gulfstream jets and Hamptons hideaways.

By virtue of his profession, however, and his role treating the brooding, Fuld-like Harry Shapiro, Cowper is able to make some poignant observations about the ways of financiers, without overly immersing the reader in the world of Wall Street. And Cowper’s status as an outsider makes him a useful conduit for other characters to explain, blessedly briefly, the relevant components of finance.

It doesn’t take an MBA to get sucked into the story. Not long after Shapiro’s humiliating fall from grace as chief executive of investment bank Seligman, his wife Nora finds him at home with a gun and brings him into the psychiatric ward of a hospital, one that happens to have a Harold L. and Nora Shapiro wing. That means when Shapiro wants to go home after a short stay, Cowper’s administrators all but make the decision for him. And when Shapiro’s nemesis and replacement Marcus Greene of Rosenthal turns up dead, Cowper finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having potentially enabled the crime.

Rosenthal is an unmistakable stand-in for Goldman. The real U.S. bank is known for being “long-term greedy,” the fictional one is “patient – they wait a long time to get a return.” The steely novelistic Treasury secretary is formerly of Rosenthal as the real one was of Goldman. And the narrator’s judgment of Rosenthal fits Goldman perfectly: “Everyone seemed to admire it, or be jealous of it, or think it had some unfair advantage.”

These knowing morsels are sprinkled throughout, as Cowper undertakes an amateur investigation to keep from becoming a convenient target for prosecutors, scapegoat for his bosses and alibi for Shapiro. “A Fatal Debt” has all the familiar trappings of a classic whodunit suitable for summer – femmes fatales, mysterious assailants, forbidden lovers, aggressive cops and helpful underlings. But Gapper has a nice way of stitching them all together.

He also more than makes up for a few eye-rolling moments with his sharp, interspersed comment on the world of high finance. In one particularly poignant moment, a “rocket scientist” tries to help Cowper understand how so many mortgage securities could collapse all at once by speaking the doctor’s own language. The trader likens the correlations to broken heart syndrome, a temporary medical condition that can be caused by the death of a loved one.

It’s in these surprising ways that a fantastical whodunit manages to reveal certain Wall Street realities in a way that nonfiction never can.

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