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419, by Will Ferguson, Head of Zeus, RRP£16.99, 400 pages
In Canada, Henry Curtis, an elderly man, drives, very fast, off the edge of a road. When the emergency services arrive, he is breathing his last. The police interview his wife and grown-up children. For a while, Curtis’s death is a mystery. He wasn’t having a heart attack or a brain seizure in the car. He wasn’t being chased. But there’s something odd about his tyre tracks.
What the tracks show is that Curtis drove towards the edge of the road, braked hard, turned around, and drove towards the edge again. He planned to commit suicide, but he had second thoughts. Then, in the end, he went through with it, flooring the accelerator and plunging over the edge. Something had made Henry Curtis a tormented man. His son, Warren, a businessman, is angry. His daughter, Laura, a copy editor, is sad and confused. A few days later, Curtis’ wife goes to an ATM to take out some money. The card is refused. A dreadful thing has happened to the joint account Henry Curtis shared with his wife. It’s empty. Worse: the mortgage company is about to foreclose on the house. The equity’s gone. Someone has colonised the Curtis family finances, and sucked them dry.
A decent, ordinary man commits suicide; he’s been scammed; his brave daughter seeks answers in Nigeria. Why? Pretty soon, we see, or think we see, what’s going on. Ferguson introduces us to Winston, a Nigerian scam artist. Winston perpetrates what is sometimes called ‘advance fee fraud’, or ‘419 fraud’, so called because it breaks section 419 of the criminal code in Nigeria. Working from an internet café in Lagos, he sends mass emails to people in the affluent west, asking them to take part in fraudulent deals. Using different aliases, Winston asks people to help him transfer money; it’s dodgy, he explains, but they’ll get something for nothing in the process. He asks them for money up front to set up the deal. Then more, and yet more, until he bleeds them dry. Henry Curtis was one of Winston’s victims.
We’ve all heard of Nigerian scams, and know roughly how they work. Here, Will Ferguson (who won Canada’s 2012 Giller prize for this book) gives the best and most detailed account I’ve ever seen. Winston, a talented scammer, is recruited – actually, the recruitment is more like a scam in itself, by a Nigerian crime kingpin. He has a stable of scammers – ‘guymen’, who send the mass emails, ‘story men’, who dream up the scams, ‘bankers’, who handle the money, and ‘enforcers’, who use threats. We see how the victim is sucked in, cajoled, and tapped; we see how the scam is based on complicity as well as fear. Also, we see how western police forces can do nothing about it – how can anonymous scammers be traced? The stage is set for a lone hero – or, in this case, a lone heroine. Enter Laura. She’s determined. She’s brilliant. And she believes she can trace the bad guy. She has the emails he used to scam her dad. And, as a copy editor, she knows the English language, and that nobody who writes can be totally anonymous.
If that was all there was to this novel, it would still be pretty good. But Ferguson gives us more. At one point the mafia don tells Winston: ‘If we Nigerians are good at thieving, we learnt it from the British. We may plunder bank accounts; they plundered entire continents.’ Ferguson introduces us to Nnamdi, a decent man who works as a mechanic on the edges of the giant oil trade that dominates millions of Nigerian lives. Through Nnamdi, we see that oil companies have sucked vast amounts of wealth out of Nigeria, while simultaneously rendering it poorer. Now the waters are polluted, the environment is trashed; now some Nigerians work for the oil companies, while others terrorise them. The oil boom has made Nigeria a sort of Wild West, with lots of double-crossing and very little trust. And without trust, as any economist knows, affluence dwindles.
So here they are – Laura, Winston, and Nnamdi, on a collision course. The Canadian copy editor, the slick 419er and the cowboy mechanic. Ferguson ties the plot together neatly; it is satisfying on several levels. We see that the 419 scammers, hateful as they are, look rather like a mirror-image of us westerners. We sucked out their wealth; as a result, our society is rich, trusting and peaceful, and theirs is wild and splintered. But now, in the age of the internet, they are mining our most precious resource – our trust. I can see that this would, and probably will, make a powerful, sweeping movie. From suburban Alberta to the shanty towns of Lagos; I can see it already. And the climax, which I won’t tell you about, is worthy of any thriller.