Financial fiction

By Felix Salmon
June 22, 2012
Capital, the new novel from John Lanchester, we're introduced to banker Roger Yount, and are treated to a wonderful three-page riff on the million-pound bonus he's desperate to receive:

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Near the beginning of Capital, the new novel from John Lanchester, we’re introduced to banker Roger Yount, and are treated to a wonderful three-page riff on the million-pound bonus he’s desperate to receive:

He wanted a million pounds because he had never earned it before and he felt it was his due and it was a proof of his masculine worth. But he also wanted it because he needed the money. The figure of £1,000,000 had started as a vague, semi-comic aspiration and had become an actual necessity.

Yount’s voice, as channeled by Lanchester, is one of the joys of this book: “Any flights would be taken business class, since Roger thought that the whole point of having money, if it had to be summed up in a single point, which it couldn’t, but if you had to, the whole point of having a bit of money was not to have to fly scum class”.

Lanchester is a real expert on banking and the global financial crisis: his book I.O.U. is a great one-stop guide to what went wrong. And having written that book, he had no need to try to explain the crisis all over again here. Instead, he has rolled out a much broader, novelistic canvas, stretching across creeds and classes and countries, which is a true pleasure to read, and which does an amazing job of evoking and showing what London has become. Anybody who loves London, or hates it, will love this book, and will find just as much detail in the descriptions of football agents and corner shops as there is on the trading floor.

Lanchester’s not the only Wall Street expert to have written a novel: The FT’s John Gapper has come out with one too. Called A Fatal Debt, and coming out on Tuesday, it’s a rollicking beach read, and loads of fun for anybody who prefers their bankers on the dead side. Gapper’s a friend, so I can’t claim to be objective here, but I devoured this one in no time. Lanchester’s book is long and complex and something to savor; Gapper’s is punchy and plot-driven and a guiltless pleasure.

Gapper’s book is set mostly in New York, and the Hamptons; I’m sure it’s going to be read around these parts a great deal over the next couple of months. It’s the perfect form of escapism for anybody with a summer place on the South Fork, especially if they have anything to do with finance. Which most of them do.

The financial thriller is becoming something of a genre these days: I also enjoyed The Fear Index, by Robert Harris, and Dead Bankers, by Philip Delves Broughton. It turns out that people who understand money also seem to be quite good at cunning and plot twists, a bit like mathematicians tend to be good musicians. And for those of us who read thousands of words of dry financial nonfiction every day, the opportunity to kick back with a book designed to be enjoyed, rather than something more didactic, is something to be savored and treasured. Now that we’re officially in summer, you can make some space for fiction. And you could do a lot worse than picking up any of these books.

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