Banking on Financial Thrillers

Author Stephen Norman stopped by Criminal Element on his Trading Down blog tour! Read his guest post about financial thrillers and see where he'll be next!

My agent told me that financial thrillers are hard to sell and techie books are tough to write—the protagonists are unappealing, and the technical stuff is hard to translate into words. So why have I spent five years of my life writing Trading Down, a cybercrime novel set in a bank?

It has been a challenge, I admit that. There is a certain amount of jargon that you have to ask the reader to invest in. Acronyms like DBA and DR are not everyday parlance. But here’s what encouraged me: in 2001, I was in a building near the World Trade Center. We (the IT department of Merrill Lynch) had a project to move the trading floor across the River Hudson. It would take a year. After 9/11, we lost our trading floor. We opened the new one across the river one week later. How was that possible?

I told that story to my children and non-geeky friends, and to my surprise, they loved it. They wanted to know more. They wanted other stories. Which was easy for me because I’m like the replicant Roy Batty in the first Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion…” I worked for over 20 years doing banking technology, and I’ve got the scars from every kind of disaster and craziness. I’ve tried to distill some of that craziness into Trading Down.

Look, banks have a lot going for them as a setting. Banks are populated by men (and women, believe me) with huge egos who make loads of money. Or want to. This leads to aberrant behavior when they don’t. Trading banks are utterly dependent on their technology. Speed and time to market are everything. This leads to more dysfunctional behavior when someone screws up. My boss asked the head of Debt Markets what he would give me if I delivered his new bond trading system. “Fuck you,” came the reply, “if he doesn’t deliver, I want his head on a platter.”  

Banks are really important and surprisingly vulnerable. Trading Down illustrates ways (most of which I have witnessed) they could be brought down by a cyberattack. In the climax of Trading Down, the bank is threatened by a rogue software program. The more I researched it, the more convinced I was that this attack would destroy the bank as swiftly and comprehensively as Lehman Brothers, with disastrous consequences for the rest of the financial system. And us.

Read David Cranmer's review of Trading Down!


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Stephen Norman spent 20 years at the forefront of investment banking IT, facing industry turbulence from the rise and fall of the dotcoms to the destruction of 9/11 to the banking collapse of 2008. He has worked in financial centers across the world—from London and New York to Hong Kong and Tokyo—and has fulfilled a range of high-powered roles, including Chief Technology Officer at Merrill Lynch and an unusually long seven-year stint as CIO of RBS Global Markets. In 2012, he left the world of finance to focus on his writing. Trading Down is Stephen’s first novel.

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