Poison Pill by Glenn Kaplan is a business thriller involving Big Pharma and deadly international competition for blockbuster drugs (available October 22,2013).
It’s odd that we don’t yet have a John Grisham- or Scott Turow-equivalent for business fiction. Hostile corporate takeovers should provide at least as much innate, real-life drama as courtrooms do. Consider the ingredients: Two boardrooms full of towering egos, Borgia-like courts of brokers, lawyers, financiers and spinmeisters, public posturing and private dirty tricks to gain advantage, multi-billion-dollar stakes, and fear and loathing pouring all the way down to the shop floor. This stew could make for fascinating, nail-biting reading without having to tart it up much.
Poison Pill has the bones of such a story. Emma Conway, Our Heroine, is a senior executive in full-line pharmaceutical maker Percival & Baxter. Then poison makes its way into a batch of P&B’s flagship pain reliever just as private-equity firm Anglia Partners launches a takeover bid. P&B’s CEO is the first victim, elevating Emma to the corner office. As events unfold, Emma increasingly smells a rat. The rodent in question isn’t just Anglia’s chief—Emma’s despised ex-husband, Josh Katz—but also Viktor Volkov, the London-based Russian thug-cum-oligarch pulling Josh’s strings.
Glenn Kaplan has the background to create a good business thriller. A 20-year ad man, he wrote The Big Time, a non-fiction look at corporate leadership based on interviews with 300 top executives. This is his third novel, after All for Money and Evil, Inc. (which became a New York Times bestseller).
All this is to say that he should know the territory and be able to provide juicy inside baseball on the goings-on in both P&B and Anglia.
Once the takeover story gets started, what there is of it isn’t bad. However, it just glosses over the surface of what’s happening in the boardrooms, lawyer’s offices, CNBC studios, and cubicles. Much of the narrative concentrates on the less-compelling personal woes of the three main adult characters, tossing in the occasional mention of “tender offer” or “due diligence” to remind us there’s some serious business going on. Because P&B essentially doesn’t exist outside Emma’s executive suite, even if we could feel the threat to her company, we probably wouldn’t care as much as we should.
Worse, though, is that to get to the takeover story, you have to make it through the first ~80 pages. In them, you’re introduced to the main characters and their satellites. The men are bloated, preening, egomaniacal plutocrats or their toadies; the women are conniving gold-diggers; and the children are whiny, over-entitled brats. Our Heroine makes a cameo first appearance in the midst of this and leaves little impression other than haplessness. All this is unveiled through great dumps of backstory, “as you know” dialog, characters constantly using each other’s names, and not one, but two characters looking in the mirror and describing themselves. In this example, Volkov is discussing his late wife with the man who is his closest friend and constant companion since childhood:
“How old would she be today?” Artyom asked tenderly.
“Forty-one,” Viktor answered in a sad whisper, “and one month. Her birthday was four weeks and two days ago.” Viktor looked down. “I can’t believe she is ten years gone.”
“Tanya looks so much like her,” Artyom said brightly, patting Viktor on the shoulder.
“Yes, Artyomchik, more and more each year. She just graduated from Cambridge, you know. Trinity, where the royals and aristos get their education. I see so much of Alexandra in her. The way she moves or says things or raises her eyebrow. Willful, too. Always a mind of her own. Like her mother. She has no idea how much she takes after her. No mother at only ten.”
No, these two have not just met after twenty years apart, and Artyom knows Volkov’s daughter—since birth
Later, Emma has a conversation with a once-rival-now-allied co-worker:
Linda nodded. “Emma, is there anything you want me to do? Anything you’d like me to try to find out?”
“No, Linda, thanks.” Emma felt vindicated in her judgment. Yes, she felt she had turned Linda Farlow into an ally, after all. “But if you hear or see something that I should know about, I’d appreciate it if you give me a heads-up.”
“Of course, Emma.” Linda reached forward and squeezed Emma’s arm.
“Anything I can do, Emma. We’re all in this with you.”
Emma, exhausted, sat down at the conference room table. Behind her back, she heard Linda greeting Hal Percival in the hallway.
“Hi, Hal,” Linda said.
“Hello, Linda. It’s so good to see you,” he replied.
“You too, Hal!”
Emma shows little of the drive or edge common among top executives. She makes over-earnest speeches about doing good and company-as-family, but otherwise seems to mostly react to events, not drive them. She spends more time being distraught than I expect Sheryl Sandberg or Meg Whitman ever have. I believe part of the problem is that Kaplan couldn’t bring himself to risk Emma becoming unlikeable by making her strong enough to be credible. Authors (especially male ones) have to walk that tightrope all the time; it’s hard, but certainly doable.
The increasingly improbable exploits of two of those whiny, over-entitled brats—Volkov’s terminally self-involved daughter Tanya, and Emma and Josh’s milquetoast son Peter—take up ever more page space as the plot moves forward, threatening to turn this grown-up business potboiler into a YA relationship drama. Peter is a swirling soup of teenage petulance and pre-adolescent insecurity, while Tanya is consistently portrayed in such a way that even when she finally does the right thing, it seems to be more a temper tantrum than a sign of maturation or change.
I was a great fan of Paul Erdman’s financial thrillers (The Crash of ’79 being his most famous). I’m casting a covetous eye toward the growing body of accounting thrillers, such as those by Ian Hamilton and Ashley Fontainne. I really wanted to like Poison Pill more than I did. Kaplan’s previous book (Evil, Inc.) was a bestseller, which shows that enough other people like what he’s doing. As for me, I hope that the next time he writes a business thriller, he remembers to put more business and thrills into it.
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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His 2012 international thriller Doha 12 doesn’t involve poison pills or stock manipulation, but does feature terminations for cause. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.