Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Now who remembers Martin Baker?

A financial thriller that could have been so much better
Johnathan Pearce (London)
Book reviews
Martin Baker, the UK journalist - he worked for several years at the International Herald Tribune in Paris as one of his stints - is someone who has realised that there is an untapped seam out there to be mined: thrillers about the world of finance. I have often myself wondered why, considering how much news is written about financial speculators these days, that there have not been more novels with speculators and the like as the main characters. There are some exceptions: there is Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of The Vanities; there is, of course, Ayn Rand's great celebration of capitalism in Atlas Shrugged, although the book is more about industry than money-lending. The novel Cash McCall is a neglected 1950s classic. Occasionally financiers feature in other novels but that is pretty much it. As for movies, ask anyone about a fictional presentation of a Wall Street speculator or City buyout king, and they will say Wall Street, with the glorious Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas. And he was supposed to be a baddie, remember.
Mr Baker wants to plug a bit of a gap and he has written a thriller called
Meltdown, which came out a little while ago. I picked up my signed copy and a few days ago, I read it. I am afraid I have to say the book comes as a bit of disappointment. If a movie is ever made out of it, it could be toe-curlingly embarrassing unless they sort out some of the plot and characters.
Without giving away a rambling plot, the protagonist is a brilliant young Oxford academic called Samuel Spendlove, who is persuaded to be employed by some shady media types to spy on a bank in Paris, to discover the doings of a proprietary trader who makes gazillions of dollars on deals, to report back on his affairs, and presumably, to bring said shady trader to book. What we get is what I might call the "misadventures of Samuel", a story of a once-innocent academic fallen among knaves. There are sex scenes so bad that I fear for Martin Baker's reputation. And they add nothing to the plot. There is a feeling that we need a least a bit of sex in there to clinch a movie deal for the novel. Much of the dialogue between the main characters is clunky and lacks believability. I have worked in finance and the media and can state without qualification that yes, there are some nasty pieces of work in both, but they do not talk as Martin Baker has them talking, at least not all the time.
Also, the plot does not make a lot of sense, and the central premise: that a single proprietary desk dealer and a few buddies can bring down not just a couple of other banks, but wipe out parts of the global economy, simply does not stand up to scrutiny, although it plays to the notion that bankers are "Masters of the Universe" with deep and dark powers. Of course, there can be spectacular blowups and we are witnessing some of that now, as the recent cases of Northern Rock and Bear Stearns prove, and as Barings and Long Term Capital Management did before it. But the idea that one private bank can cause a major recession seems over the top; to do that, they need the assistance, however unintended, of governments and central banks. For sure, in a thriller, a bit of licence is okay, but you need enough believability to carry the reader along. I do not think Mr Baker quite pulls this off.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment is not the credibility of the plot, but that the character of Spendlove is not quite convincing: he seems too gullible. I never quite believe that such a smart guy could let his media puppetmasters treat him like so badly. We never really find out what motivated his media controllers to act as they did. If I were Spendlove, I'd tell his bosses to get lost and go back to doing something more intelligent instead. He lacks depth; we do not really get to grips with what makes him tick as a character beyond a desire to get some excitement away from the academic world and earn pots of money.
There are good things about the novel, to be fair. Mr Baker knows how finance works or at least he knows about the jargon used around it; he has a good feel for what a dealing room looks like, how people in these places act and he sometimes gets the dialogue right. As a journalist, he has an excellent understanding of how markets move on rumours, how news services like Reuters or Dow Jones cover the news and how bankers' hours get elongated by time-zones. Some of the touches are a bit cliched, but the cliches do not grate too much.
Generally speaking, however, I rate this book as a two out of five, with five as the top score and one as poor. There is a great, contemporary novel to be written that has the doings of financiers at its core and which does not pander to the notion that moneymaking is a zero-sum game. Mr Baker does at least understand, to his credit, that there is a yawning gap in the arts world's treatment of finance. It is a bit of a shame that he has not really filled it. Maybe the next one will be better.


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