A novel take on the financial crisisJuly 27, 2012: 7:34 AM ET
Fiction is sometimes better than fact. A review of A Fatal Debt, John Gapper's novelization of the fall of Wall Street.
By Katie Benner, writer
FORTUNE -- Few real-life events have produced as many villains, intriguing plot twists, and surprise endings as the recent financial crisis. But most of the non-fiction books on the topic have been dry, jargon-y tomes that read like McKinsey case studies and only hint at the human drama that played out as Wall Street imploded.
And so A Fatal Debt, the new novel by Financial Times columnist John Gapper, is a welcome change -- a fast-paced book that should entertain finance aficionados and fans of detective fiction alike.
A Fatal Debt follows the story of Dr. Ben Cowper, a psychiatrist at New York-Episcopal Hospital, who treats a powerful, but disgraced, bank executive named Harry Shapiro. Because the banker has donated generously to the hospital, Cowper acquiesces to Shapiro's wish to be released. In a matter of days, Shapiro is accused of murdering a fellow financier and Cowper is accused of negligently setting loose a mentally unstable patient. It soon becomes apparent that Shapiro was using his young therapist as a convenient alibi, forcing Cowper to uncover Harry's secrets to save his reputation and career.
The book's timeline tracks that of Wall Street's collapse -- the fall of Lehman Brothers, and the Congressional hearings that forced titans of finance to bow before an endless sea of lawmakers and special investigators -- with characters and plot points that are drawn from the people and events that marked the meltdown. Because the fictional events are loosely based on actual events, one of the fun parlor games for those who followed the credit crisis will be to match Gapper's banks and bankers with real life counterparts. Certainly Goldman Sachs (GS) appears, along with a bank that resembles Lehman Brothers with a dash of Merrill Lynch. Harry Shapiro seems an amalgamation of Dick Fuld and Ken Lewis.
Gapper smartly uses Cowper as a Main Street witness to the dramatic events that pushed the country into a devastating recession. He is agog at Shapiro's outré wealth, the callousness of his finance peers, and the industry's overwhelming avarice. He struggles to understand the toxic assets that Shapiro inherited, why they destroyed his firm, and how they led to his fall.
While Gapper is a first-time novelist, he is a fan of detective fiction, thrillers, and Alfred Hitchcock, influences that show up throughout the book. His book is plot-driven with a couple of twists and turns. Cowper is a desperate everyman a la Jimmy Stewart. The men are all shady. The women are all dames. And none of the people in Gapper's world are as they seem.
Gapper says that he didn't set out to write a novel at all. It's just that all of the good non-fiction topics for a book were taken. I'm glad that he was late to the why-Wall-Street-collapsed-in-300-dense-as-hell-pages party because A Fatal Debt is so much more fun.
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