Sharp practice

 A Fatal Debt, by John Gapper, Ballantine Books, RRP$26, 288 pages (UK publication in September, Duckworth)

The ongoing global financial crisis may have taken its toll on the wealth of nations, but it has provided plot riches for traders in fiction. Just as the sassiest of bankers have found ways to profit from the crash, so novelists such as Sebastian Faulks, Justin Cartwright and John Lanchester have discovered the boom among the bust.

The latest writer to turn to this high-stakes world is John Gapper. But unlike his novelist peers, Gapper hasn’t had to learn about finance from scratch: he has been reporting on it for years, most recently as the New York-based chief business commentator for this newspaper. He has turned his knowledge of the murkiest side of Wall Street to good effect in his first novel, a thriller about masters of the universe and murder.

Gapper’s financier is Harry Shapiro, former head of an investment bank, whose fall from grace has been lurchingly swift. His bank inadvertently bought a pile of toxic mortgage bonds and has failed spectacularly, the US Treasury has stepped in to shore it up and Harry has been unceremoniously shamed and ousted. When the use of the company jet is withdrawn, it is the trigger for a suicidal depression: Harry’s wife Nora finds him sitting vacantly at home with a gun in his hand and brings him into a New York psychiatric hospital.

The on-call shrink is Dr Ben Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”): British, young and somewhat gauche. The diagnosis seems simple enough and so Ben commits Harry to the hospital’s premium ward, which is “more like a hotel but there was no checking out”. The patient is no ordinary billionaire, however: he and his wife are major donors to the hospital. When Harry decides that he wants to go home, the hospital administrator, an icy amalgam of menace and self-interest, suggests unsubtly that it might be in the hospital’s – and Ben’s – best interests if he sets aside his professional concerns and signs the release form. Ben reluctantly agrees.

The next time he hears of the Shapiros is on the television news. There has been a shooting at their beach house in the Hamptons and someone is dead. The corpse is not Harry but Marcus Greene, the man who replaced him at the investment bank. What was possible suicide has become actual murder. Ben may have aided a revenge killing, and also faces criminal and civil lawsuits for medical negligence.

So Ben finds himself in a traditional thriller tight spot: the vultures are circling, the police seem determined to implicate him, the hospital can’t distance itself quickly enough from its tarnished employee. The only way to save himself is to get to the bottom of the crime.

The problem is, as he puts it, there is “nothing cut and dried about the human psyche”. That includes his own. Ben doesn’t tell his lawyer about the tentative romance he strikes up with the Shapiros’ beautiful companion/servant. Nor, when he’s attacked in Central Park and his apartment is ransacked, does he bother telling the police. He seems hell-bent on making the mess he’s in even messier.

As Ben’s amateur sleuthing takes him to trading floors and the Treasury, Gapper deftly depicts a cabal of amorality and arrogance. The men who sit in the offices overlooking “the thicket of the Manhattan skyline, the view granted only to the city’s leviathans and power brokers” believe that money can buy anything and anyone, and they are usually right.

This is in many ways a satisfyingly old-fashioned whodunit, a psychiatrist procedural rather than a police procedural. Gapper offers an adroit guide to the mindset of the super-rich and to the sharp practice that can make, and lose, fortunes. He knows when to put his foot on the narrative accelerator and when to ease off, and there’s a suitably surprising “big reveal” – although the wind-down afterwards is too gentle.

Where Gapper is at his most persuasive is in describing the symbiotic relationship between bankers and their shrinks: the former being people “who’ve turned their neuroses into professional success and now want to talk about it at great expense” and the latter being all too happy to indulge them.

Michael Prodger is a freelance critic and a senior research fellow at Buckingham University

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