The devil to pay

Risk, by CK Stead, MacLehose Press, RRP£16.99, 272 pages

It is no insult to say that this roman à clef of modern London and the hegemony of finance is an old-fashioned novel, the kind of slim volume with which the reader might have curled up on a Sunday in the mid-1970s. It has the flavour of Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age (1973) or, from an even earlier time, Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), offering a similar wry observance of the bourgeoisie.

CK Stead – Karl to his friends – is one of New Zealand’s most distinguished poets and novelists and will be 80 this month.

His hero, who drifts into the City, credit derivatives, big bonuses, Croatian hedge funds and sitting-room arguments about Tony Blair and the invasion of Iraq, is Sam Nola. At the dangerous age of 47, Sam has abandoned his wife and two sons in New Zealand, rented a flat in Notting Hill, got a job as a lawyer at a bank in the City and is eager for action.

He gets it, both with various women, and from the explosive era between the London Tube bombings of July 2005 (in which a character is duly caught) and the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008. A Nick Carraway surrounded by Gatsbys and mansions, Sam wanders through the historical fireworks.

The Gatsbyest of all is Reuben Leveson, head of “credit products” at the bank and Sam’s boss. They share Croatian connections – Sam’s past affair with a distant cousin and Reuben’s sinister friendship with a wolfish contact who holds the codes to a bulging Swiss bank account. Reuben also has an attractive sister, conveniently semi-detached from her rich old husband.

The story commences in the style of an author who is lazy or tired out. Characters are abruptly pitched into action; banking is so lackadaisically explained that Stead wrongly spells out CDOs as “collateral debt obligations” at the first attempt.

A female colleague with whom Sam goes on a date to see a film about an Argentine banking scandal does some heavy foreshadowing over pizza and wine in Leicester Square. “It couldn’t happen here. The government would step in. It’s not Britain, is it?” Oh Maureen, you’ve got a shock coming.

Yet, a few chapters in, I found myself in the grip of an artist with the ability to capture mood and beauty in a sentence: “The sky out there was grey and grey-black; the river, rushing seaward riding the outgoing tide, was grey-brown; the city in this light was like a dull mix of concrete and pewter and glass. And on television a man was being hanged.”

After this, I realised that what I took to be the book’s other flaws were more akin to the spareness of a composer’s late quartet (or of Shakespeare’s late play, The Winter’s Tale, a theme of the story), and it was easy to relax into what is, at its heart, an enjoyable tale. Perhaps it is too much of a crowd-pleaser – a hero who has the golden touch with women and beginner’s luck with money – but it is pleasing nonetheless.

It also has a dark, Spark-like undertone. The devil, like Dougal Douglas in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, has a habit of turning up in a friendly, helpful fashion. He helps characters to be creative and get rich but they later suffer the consequences. He is in the details of CDOs.

Readers of Capital, John Lanchester’s recent novel, will appreciate this as a companion piece. For me, it recalls Drabble’s The Ice Age, set in the wake of the 1973 property crash with similarly dazed characters thrust into wealth for reasons they cannot explain.

They live in an age in which money enables yet taints everything, even Sam’s dream of his lost love – “like a promissory note from the stars that had already gone past the date when it could be redeemed”.

John Gapper is an FT columnist. His financial novel ‘A Fatal Debt’, is published in the UK by Duckworth

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