Nothing Personal by Mike Offit is a financial thriller written by a Wall Street insider about a young MBA who whose mentor at the bank gets murdered (available February 11, 2014).
As I've mentioned before, I’m often on the lookout for good business-themed mysteries and thrillers. Not ones where the hero or villain happens to be a businesscritter, but ones where business is vital to the functioning of the plot, where the mystery or thrills grow out of the supercharged environment of high finance or corporate skullduggery.
Nothing Personal, career securities trader Mike Offit’s debut “novel of Wall Street,” promises: “Warren [the hero] soon finds himself at the center of two murder investigations as a crime spree seemingly focused on powerful finance wizards plagues Wall Street. The blood-soaked trail leads to vast wealth and limitless risk…” Financial and personal mayhem! Good stuff, right?
Not so much. Nothing Personal is a crime novel, but not a murder novel. The crime isn’t in the couple of killings, which in many ways are beside the point; it’s in the way day-to-day business is done in the corporate finance world in which Our Hero works.
It’s the beginning of the Reagan era of the 1980s, and the whole country’s for sale. Warren Hament has a fresh Columbia University MBA in his mitt and no particular drive to do anything but make money, so he makes the only logical career choice: he joins Weldon Brothers, a top Wall Street investment banker. There he starts making money hand over fist, beds a couple of stunning beauties, discovers that his coworkers are as profane and oversexed as the characters in The Wolf of Wall Street (minus the onstage orgies and cocaine), and participates in the securitization of mortgage finance and the slow corruption of the American economy that led to the train wrecks of 1989, 2000 and 2007.
Offit certainly knows the territory—twenty years on the commercial mortgage and asset-backed securities desks at Goldman Sachs and Prudential, among others—knows how the system works, and how the people who work the system speak and act. The book is chockablock with chewy passages such as this:
“Well, I know they talk to Goldman, and to Merrill, and neither of them will know shit about this bond,” Shuler said. “This could be a home run.”
“Well, it so happens, I structured this deal three years ago, when I was at Goldman, and the information they have on this sheet is wrong. That deal has ten years of prepayment protection, not four.”
Warren realized that this made the bond far more valuable. The interest rate on the mortgage that backed the bond was high—10.75 percent—and if the issuer could not refinance it for ten years, whoever held it would get to earn that interest a long time, making it trade at a much higher price.
This is one of the less-technical finance reveries, as well as one of the less illegal/unethical. There’s a lot of talk about the coming of the quants (the rocket scientists who create financial instruments so complex that not even they fully understand them) and the use of junk bonds and financial sleight-of-hand to inflate corporate bottom-lines and hollow out the businesses, to the benefit of the senior executives and bankers. Like I said, this is the crime part of this crime novel. It’s interesting to get the inside scoop on the humble beginnings of practices that would turn vicious in the 2000s and hand us the Great Recession.
Offit is a competent writer. While most of his characters don’t do much learning or changing, they at least stay true to their essential natures. He’s diligent about describing people and places, and the descriptions have the ring of authenticity gained by the author having been there and done that. The dialog usually sounds like it’s coming out of real people’s mouths. So far, so good.
However, there’s that back-cover copy promising a blood-soaked crime spree. What of that?
It’s pretty clear that Offit wanted to write a memoir. Warren shares several important biographical details with the author. Weldon sounds like a thinly-disguised Goldman Sachs. Did someone tell the author that no one’s buying Wall Street memoirs anymore, and he should turn it into a novel? Did someone else tell him that a picaresque tale of an innocent’s passage through the Wall Street meat grinder isn’t a must-read, and he should throw in a murder or two? However it came to pass, about 40% into the novel we get this:
The sudden punch to his chest, and the second to his throat, startled him, but there was no time for anger, or even fear, as his eyes caught the glint of the long steel blade, now wet with his own blood, and his lungs filled and his breath escaped, and the hot, dark puddle that suddenly grew steamed briefly in the frostbitten evening before the wind bore it away.
The consequences last for a few pages, then it’s back to high finance. NYPD detectives appear now and then to remind us there’s still a murder enquiry going on, but that’s it. Then 60% into the novel, it happens again, with the same general lack of impact on the proceedings. Yes, Warren benefits from the fallout both times, but it seems to merely speed up his arrival at where he was going in the first place. He’s also pretty peripheral to the murder investigations… until about 80% of the way through, when he suddenly jumps in feet-first. It’s as if the author was busy spinning his intended tale and periodically realized, “I’ve gotta do something with the murders!”
Nothing Personal isn’t a bad fictionalized memoir. If you’re interested in seeing how the too-big-to-fail firms got that way (with some sex and blood thrown in), you could well do worse. But there’s a reason this is billed “A Novel of Wall Street” rather than a “Wall Street Thriller” or a “Wall Street Murder Mystery.” The killing that matters most here is financial, not mortal.
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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. In his international thriller Doha 12 and near-future thriller South, he executes characters, not trades, and neither clips coupons nor manipulates LIBOR. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.