What Makes A Great Financial Thriller?
One of my favourite movies is 12 Angry Men, a courtroom drama showing the emotional turmoil within the jury room during a murder trial. It’s an oldie, but still worth watching today. The legal thriller has been with us for some considerable time, and the works of John Grisham, Michael Connelly, Mark Gimenez and many others have kept us hooked on the genre to this day.
By contrast, the financial thriller is still finding its feet as a sub-set of crime fiction. The earliest work of its type that I’ve read was The Billion Dollar Sure Thing, a 1973 novel written by former banker and convicted fraudster, Paul Erdman. He wrote it while awaiting trial in a Swiss jail. Erdman called his books “fi-fi” but, sadly, the genre label never stuck. Apart from The Millionaires by Brad Meltzer, and one or two others, for some reason, the financial thriller hasn’t yet witnessed the long line of big name authors sported by its legal cousin.
One reason I suspect it hasn’t achieved the same traction is the public’s aversion to numbers. Mention the words equation, percentage, fraction, and multiplication to most people I know and their eyes glaze over. I get much the same reaction from friends when I tell them my first career was in private equity and investment banking. Instinctively, they flinch and quickly move the conversation on to another subject.
The sad thing is that financial thrillers can grip an audience when they are done well. Take the 1987 Oliver Stone movie, Wall Street—the film that made famous the phrase “Greed is good” and thus gave permission to everyone to despise investment bankers. The movie won an Oscar and a Golden Globe and made good money at the box office. The current TV series, Billions, starring Damian Lewis, is another example of how a well-told financial tale can keep an audience hooked.
So what makes a great financial thriller? Having written three of them, I’d say there are two essential ingredients. First, don’t get weighed down by too many monetary details. When I wrote the first draft of The Geneva Connection, I had a couple of my beta-readers tell me to take out all the references to financial instruments. They said it turned them off. At first, I protested, arguing that such detail gave the book authenticity. They said most people don’t care about the intricacies of private equity, and they were right. When I stripped it all out, I found I had a much better book, one that flowed, freeing the reader from unnecessary interruptions that did nothing to advance the story. The lesson I learned was that if a financial thriller is to find a large audience, it has to be written for the non-technical reader. My mistake was writing that first draft for people with a private equity background. While the financial markets form the background to novels in this genre, they should remain just that—a setting and nothing more.
The second essential ingredient is that the narrative has to involve a conflict between fully rounded people. By that, I mean it simply cannot rely on a fast-moving plot and a sexy setting. The main characters have to be living, breathing individuals with human failings and aspirations, and not one dimensional cardboard cut-outs. In my view, that is why Billions works so well while many others haven’t. The characters played by Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti have all the same human hopes and failings as us. That’s what makes us care about what happens to them. Yes, it’s interesting to imagine what life would be like as a billionaire running a Wall Street hedge fund, but that’s not what captivates the audience; the people do.
My latest financial thriller, Shakedown, describes a federal government on the brink of bankruptcy that resorts to selling off federal assets to private equity companies to stay afloat. The novel portrays a terrifying web of organized crime—extending all the way to the White House itself—involving blackmail and assassination on an industrial scale. Sure it’s set against the backdrop of billion-dollar corporate deals and private equity, but the real story is to be found in the conflict between the main character, Damon Traynor, who runs the private equity firm, and Ben Mylor, the government’s criminal fixer, who knows no bounds as he carries out the president’s bidding.
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