Trading Down by Stephen Norman is a fast-paced cyberthriller set inside an investment bank under cyber-attack.
A novel on the banking infrastructure and what could happen if it was obliterated is certainly appropriate to modern times. Seems like a week doesn’t pass without news of another treacherous breach of everything from our financial systems straight up to the presidential election. Unfortunately, Trading Down has a shaky start at its foundation, trundles along, never reaching its full potential.
The story begins in Dubai, 2007. A scene of horror as a woman douses herself with gasoline, making her sari “wet, almost see-through. It clings to her full breasts and buttocks.” A hapless guard is splashed with the fuel as she goes on to ignite the gas.
Halfway he falls over and lies writhing. He has made the mistake of breathing in. Pale blue and orange flames caress his face.
Behind him, the figure of the woman can be seen. She could be dancing in a nightclub. Her hands are together, above her head. The sari is gone, the hair ablaze, strangely floating upwards in the flames. One leg on the ground, the other lifted, every part of her is on fire.
Even if a self-immolated death allows for the possibility where the clothing gets singed away while the hair somehow remains to be swept up into a combustible updraft, the analogy of a voluptuous woman dancing in an inferno is toneless—especially in contrast to the guard who “falls over and lies writhing.”
The ungainly scene opens the door for other unfortunate missteps, some rather redundant. When a photographer is snapping shots of a young woman named Zahra, Mr. Norman’s narration reads: “He had appeared from nowhere … holding a modern camera and taking pictures. Many pictures. Flash-flash-flash.” Six pages later, Zahra explains the intrusion to her mother: “He started taking pictures with this big camera. Flash! Flash!” The first description of the scene lacks some onomatopoeic finesse, and then to double down using the same leaden phrasing in character dialogue, it may as well be the character writing the book.
Stephen Norman’s protagonist, Chris Peters, has the chops of his creator when it comes to the intersection of the banking industry and information technology. Norman “spent 20 years at the forefront of investment banking IT,” and when the book sticks to trading floors, data centers, and the precarious financial system, Trading Down racks up several points, pulling the reader into this foreign language that could, and probably will, affect us all. He skillfully weaves the definitions of the lingo into the storytelling, so we are not scrambling to Google for explanations.
“Look, you all know what a derivative is, right? It’s a contract between us and someone else. And that contract has a value, which the system works out using complex mathematics. But that value changes all the time. What makes it go up or down? Lots of things. Interest rates. Exchange rates. Market volatility.
“A trader’s risk numbers tell him how sensitive this trade is to particular risks. If interest rates go down, what happens? If the US dollar goes up, what happens? What does he have to worry about? What does he have to hedge?”
The plight of Zahra’s family, Chris Peters, and several other characters come into focus, but at 467 pages, that’s a lot of book for a thriller. Consider two classics, William Goldman’s Marathon Man (309 pages) and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate (311 pages), as well as two slightly longer, modern novels, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island (380 pages) and Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train (336 pages)—what these novels have in common are sharp, driven storylines with an economic use of words. If you’re going to verge on a 500-page count, then you need to be on the level of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (523 pages) and Lee Child’s Killing Floor (522 pages).
In my estimation, Trading Down would have worked better slimmed down by a couple hundred pages. Then, Mr. Norman’s topical novel could have showcased his undeniable expertise.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.