Illegal Holdings by Michael Niemann is the third book in the Valentin Vermeulen Thriller series, set in Africa (available March 1, 2018).
When you consider the civil wars, insurgencies, and ethnic slaughters that continue to flare up around Africa, its plagues (Ebola, anyone?) and famines and ecological disasters, you could be forgiven for thinking that a little financial monkey-business is small beer. But the hijacking of national treasuries and international relief and development aid often lies at the root of all that badness. If the money disappears down a rathole, roads don’t get built, the army goes unpaid (it’s never smart to create bored, hungry men with guns), clinics shut down, and wars, plagues, and famines kick off.
Someone has to try to track down that stolen money. It’s why we have forensic accountants and auditors. Sadly, they usually don’t get to be heroes in their own thrillers.
Michael Niemann’s Valentin Vermeulen series—of which Illegal Holdings is the third installment—is an exception. Vermeulen is Belgian—like Hercule Poirot, though without the moustache—and works as an investigator for the United Nations in the Office of Internal Oversight Services. OIOS is a real UN department that provides oversight, audit, and investigatory services for the UN’s tangle of aid programs.
In this episode, Our Hero goes to Mozambique to look into the apparent embezzlement of $5 million earmarked to buy land for small-time farmers. The UN money was supposed to be funneled through Global Alternatives, a giant philanthropic hedge fund, to Nossa Terra, its local NGO partner in Maputo. Nossa Terra never got the money. Vermeulen becomes inconvenient to the bad guys as he tries to track down the missing swag, leading to consequences that make this a thriller rather than a cozy.
Our Man Valentin is pretty decent company as he chases the bad guys through the southern half of Mozambique. He’s an out-of-shape, middle-aged bureaucrat who likes his food and adult beverages. He’s more dogged than brilliant. He displays an affection for the little guys—the small NGOs getting by on a shoestring as they try to make life a little better for their countrymen—just as he nurtures a healthy cynicism toward the politics of international aid. His thoughts and observations fit his character.
The supporting characters are decently drawn and generally worth following around. Aisa Simango, the embattled head of Nossa Terra, is the most developed of the co-stars and the easiest to grow attached to; she’s plucky and prickly and has a big heart. A street kid who goes by the handle KillBill evolves beyond his station as a thug-for-hire to grow an actual personality.
Author Niemann is a German academic, a political scientist who specializes in southern Africa. It shows; he describes the sights, sounds, and smells of Mozambique like he’s been there a lot.
Hawkers had set up their stands just past the roundabout where Julius Nyerere inexplicably stopped being a grand boulevard and devolved into a dirt track… Everything one could imagine was for sale. One stand sold Vodacom top-up cards and SIMs… Next to that, sneakers tied together by their laces hung from a rack, the seller wisely only displaying the left shoes, keeping the rights stashed away…
The plot is a conventional financial detective story, with Our Heroes slashing their way through shell companies, interbank transfers, and a collection of unreliable characters until the outline of the scam begins to form in the distance.
I have to admit to a soft spot for financial crime stories. I cut my adult reading teeth on Paul Erdman’s The Crash of ’79 and The Silver Bears (along with Alastair MacLean and John D. MacDonald) and can appreciate a yarn where SWIFT terminals and Panamanian bank accounts are more prominent (and destructive) than AK-47s or nukes. Illegal Holdings subscribes to Don Henley’s observation that “A man with a briefcase / Can steal more money / Than any man with a gun.” If this sort of thing doesn’t ring your closing bell, you probably won’t have a good time here.
The author—or his publisher—became convinced that playing with money isn’t exciting enough to keep the reader riveted, so he/they layered a coat of action-thriller tropes onto the proceedings. The bad guys sic a team of hit men on Vermeulen, who drag him off to various uncomfortable and unpleasant places to heap abuse upon him. A few secondary characters meet their ends prematurely at the hands of other roving killers. The chases are staged well and are easy enough to follow, but overall, the thriller-ish plot points are the novel’s least convincing bits.
Vermuelen—that out-of-shape, middle-aged UN functionary—uses skills for which there are no explanations to consistently foil the hard men sent after him. (This, BTW, isn’t a spoiler—it’s how most thrillers work.) The bad guys engage in a bit too much mustache-twirling as they scheme. It’s as if the author didn’t trust us to stick around despite the dual ticking clocks of Our Hero’s career ruin and the End of the World as We Know It.
Illegal Holdings is an engaging financial detective story set in an unusual, well-described environment, which unfortunately labors under an action-thriller veneer that isn’t entirely necessary. That said, its hero and subject are different enough to stand out against the mass of terrorism or psycho-killer potboilers. If you need a break from psychopaths or special-forces supermen, you might consider downing a pint of Laurentina Preta with Valentin Vermeulen.
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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His standalone near-future thriller South is set in an American Southwest that looks a lot like a Third World country; his art-crime novels The Collection and Stealing Ghosts hinge on financial and property shenanigans. His Facebook author page features spies, art crime and archaeology, among other things.