Monday, 29 August 2011

Sam Carver - Blowing up bankers: however did I think of that?

Today’s guest blogger is Tom Cain the pseudonym for an award-winning journalist, with 25 years experience working for Fleet Street newspapers, as well as major magazines in Britain and the US. Carver is the fifth book in the series to feature Samuel Carver as he takes on financial terrorism.

The story that became my latest book Carver began with a simple thought. A modern day Auric Goldfinger, who wanted to become insanely rich and screw the system while he was at it wouldn’t go to all the trouble of nicking the gold from Fort Knox. Why waste time and effort trying to kill the guards, break into the vault, remove and transport all the bullion and then flog it on the black market? These days it’s much easier to steal gigantic amounts of money just sitting at a computer terminal.

I had this thought at a time when the bankers of London and New York were doing precisely that. The Eighties, Nineties and Noughties were decades in which grossly overpaid, shamelessly greedy, utterly unprincipled men in suits carried out a series of gigantic frauds whose sole purpose was to generate false profits from which they could derive undeserved bonuses. The simple truth is that in recent years governments have spent far too much money bailing out banks. And not nearly enough jailing bankers.
Bernie Madoff was the most blatant billion-dollar criminal, if only because his particular fraud was an old-fashioned Ponzi Scheme – using new investors’ money to pay bogus returns on previous investors’ deposits – and he didn’t have the wit to try anything more modern.

Others weren’t so dumb. They created financial derivatives - notably those based on ‘sub-prime’ mortgages taken out by people who couldn’t afford the repayments, buying properties that weren’t worth the sale-price – that were patently unsound, and were recognized as such by the few punters brave enough to bet against them. Then they sold them to idiots (the fact that the fraudsters who created these products and the idiots who bought the belonged to precisely the same banks was crucial: they were all making money at both ends of the deal). Then they treated these sham transactions as if they represented genuine creations of added value, accounted for them as such, and paid themselves gigantic bonuses based on entirely imaginary turnover and profits.

These bonuses represented the only actual cash anywhere in the process … apart, of course, from the huge amounts of money extracted from ordinary taxpayers whose future prosperity was raped to pay the bills run up by these boardroom and trading-desk criminals. There has been a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle-class to the very richest members of society, a transfer that has seen a chasm open up between the decreasing living standards of the great majority and the pampered privilege of the tiny, pseudo-meritocracy of bankers, commercial lawyers, senior corporate executives and top-ranking State employees. And you don’t have to be left-wing to feel that this is an outrage. When a multi-billionaire like Warren Buffet says that it’s wrong that he should be the least-taxed employee in his company, then even the doughtiest of capitalists has to admit that something’s going badly wrong.

I saw this coming a fair way off. Unfortunately I wasn’t nearly smart enough to profit from my insight. I didn’t have the first idea about the ways in which I could have placed bets on the inevitable collapse of the whole rotten house of cards. And even if I had known, I wouldn’t have had the guts to put down my stake (assuming I had the spare cash to fund it, which I didn’t, not being a banker). Instead, I did the one thing I know how to do. I wondered how to make a story out of this appalling whole situation.

This was back in late 2006 and early 2007. I was rushing to finish my first Sam Carver book, The Accident Man, and coming to terms with the requirement to come up with a sequel. So as I was finishing one story I was trying to decide what to do for the next one. And because I was obsessed by this gigantic con-trick I could see being played out all around me, I thought that maybe I could place Carver in the middle of it somehow.

But how? Carver is an old-world kind of hero. What he does is physical. He actually kills actual bad guys with actual weapons. He uses fists, guns, wrenches, poisons, and slabs of plastic explosives. He doesn’t just sit at a terminal, clicking the keys. So he’s like a metal-bashing factory worker in a virtual, digital, online world.

Plus, there weren’t too many potential readers who shared my weird obsession. In 2007, there wasn’t a lot of interest in sub-prime mortgages, short-selling or shady financial derivatives. Then 2008 came along, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the whole global banking system went tits-up and suddenly there was a lot more interest.

But I still didn’t have a story. And to be honest, I’m not quite sure precisely how I found one. Normally I can point to ‘Eureka!’ moments when I see a picture in my head and know I’ve got the key moment in a book; or when I encounter the person who inspires a crucial character. But in the case of Carver, it was much more amorphous. There was a story in Vanity Fair about the way in which Lehman Brothers demanded total devotion not just from their executives, but also the executives’ families. There were conversations with friends who knew about how the City really worked. Having had a grossly misshapen, malevolent villain in my previous book, Dictator, there was a sense that I wanted one this time who was actually likeable, a an who might seduce readers into seeing things from his point-of-view, just as he seduces the fictional characters around him.

From this came the character of Malachi Zorn, a financial genius who hates the system that has made him rich, because (for reasons revealed in the book) it also made him an orphan. He wants revenge on the institutions that destroyed his family and he really doesn’t care who else has to suffer n order to help him get it. Naturally, the specific form of revenge he seeks is financial: he knows that there is no blow as painful to a rich man as one that hits him in the wallet. So far, so good … even I found myself rooting for Zorn at this point. But then he started behaving very badly. People started dying in large numbers and it was time for Sam Carver to sort him out. But do the financiers who populate Carver get away entirely unscathed? Ah, well, you’ll have to read it to find that out …

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