A Fatal Debt
Duckworth, 288pp, £16.99
If the test of a gutsy whodunnit is whether it dives into the bloodstream and rushes round the system until the last page is turned, then A Fatal Debt does not quite make the grade. Yet this first novel by the financial commentator John Gapper is competently told and timely. Call it “crash fiction” or “recession lit”: it is the latest fictional exploration of the fallout from the financial crisis. As long as we’re stuck in the economic doldrums, people will turn to fiction to make sense of where it all went wrong.
Gapper tells the story of a young British psychiatrist caught up in a Wall Street world in which multibillion-dollar banks have started to fall apart, their demise mirrored by the collapse of their top executives. As Dr Cowper, pronounced “Cooper”, treats a disgraced banking titan, it swiftly becomes clear that what is at stake will require much more than a handful of Prozac. As the action skips pleasurably from the moral quandaries created by the US health system, via the pressured career grind of Manhattan, to the suffocation of the all-too-perfect Hamptons, so the trap encircling Cowper begins to close. In time-honoured fashion, his only way out of the mess that threatens first his career, then his life, is to turn sleuth and unpick the mystery himself.
The book prospers when the author draws on his first-hand experience of the culture of Wall Street. Gapper, associate editor and chief business commentator at the Financial Times, convincingly conjures up a world in which bankers summon the company’s private jet the way the rest of us would jump on a bus. He exposes a crass lifestyle in which trophy wives pay thousands of dollars to install giant video screens showing the Atlantic waves rather than running the “security risk” of opening their beachside Hampton retreat up to a view of the sea and the public beach.
He also portrays those who oil the wheels of the lives of the mega-rich, the staff whose “job is to make things easy, whatever that takes”. Then there are the flexible ethics of hospital managers where multimillion-dollar donations are at stake; and, perhaps most interestingly, the former bankers who find themselves in positions of political power (think Hank Paulson) yet cling to old loyalties and nurse ancient grudges.
This is an effective picture of a society in which money doesn’t just talk, it screams. It helps us understand how the importance of cash, status and reputation drives people to behave not just oddly or badly but in some cases with extreme violence. It also goes some way to accounting for, while certainly not condoning, the angst of the high fliers who crashed to earth. If money is everything, take it away and there’s nothing.
The plot rattles along at a reasonable lick and there are twists that surprise and entertain. Although you can almost hear the “big reveal” coming, when it finally arrives it delivers a decided punch, before what feels like a bit of a soft landing. A Fatal Debt is less persuasive, however, in the depiction of its characters. A sketch of the hero’s troubled family history, which requires a quick, transatlantic jaunt, feels more like a shallow dip than the kind of digging that would explain exactly what makes him tick.
Meanwhile, an intrigue involving Cowper’s father feels more like a function of the plot rather than anything with psychological motivation. And the arrival of a love interest seems to have been included just in case those Hollywood scriptwriters come calling and require a juicy female part.
Despite all this, A Fatal Debt is lifted far beyond the conventional formula by Gapper’s insider knowledge and his wry reporter’s eye – I relished the “blue blazer and bland face” of the television journalist, employed to be “professionally grave”, and his description of “pastyfaced staffers” in bad suits at a Senate hearing. And he is refreshingly unafraid of a concluding contradiction – condemning the culture in which money is all but acknowledging that everyone has a price. That’s much more interesting than a happy ending.
Although it’s fiction, A Fatal Debt makes the reader feel like an eyewitness to a moment in history when the world as we knew it stopped turning. If crash fiction or recession lit is to catch on, it could do very much worse than take this as a model.
Laura Kuenssberg is business editor of ITV News.