Thursday, 3 May 2018

Escape and Evasion by Chris Wakling

I used to work for a city law firm.  Our clients included investment banks.  One of the cases
I worked on required me, as the most junior lawyer on the team, to go through a room full of documents in search of a smoking gun we hoped we’d never find, and didn’t. 

So far so dull. 

But the documents included the work diaries of the bankers who had negotiated the sour deal at the centre of the case, and one of those bankers had unfathomably decided to combine his working record of meetings and phone calls with details of his, er, more personal life. 

Not just dental appointments and holiday plans: this chap carefully made a note of any motivational aphorism that struck him as meaningful (‘success means success on all levels!’), alongside two faintly pencilled strings of numbers.  One string, recorded on the first day of each month, ran something like 6.2, 6.3, 5.9.  The other, recorded every Sunday, was a lower number, mostly zeros in fact: 1, 0, 2!, 0, 0, 1, 0.

What did these gnomic numbers signify?

Millions, siphoned into offshore accounts?  Thousands paid to buy off potential witnesses?

I had to ask the guy.  As in I had to: if I didn’t, the other side surely would.  It was my job.

It turned out that the bigger numbers referred to his cholesterol level.  He held my eye as he told me this.  When I asked him about the Sunday numbers he looked out of the window at a pigeon pecking on the flat roof and his neck flushed.  ‘That’s how many times my wife and I, you know, that week.’
I also focussed on the pigeon before making a note of his response.

How did this inspire the book?

It didn’t, not on it’s own at least.  It just cemented something I already knew, because it’s obvious: bankers, for all the masters-of-the-universe nonsense, are comically flawed humans, like the rest of us. 

When the financial crisis blew up ten years ago, the idea of bankers as greedy materialists fleecing the country at once underlined their fallibility – they got everything wrong – and made them, as cartoon villains, more remote.  At first I thought I’d bring a comically flawed, evil banker to life.  But although a deserving target, it seemed an easy one.  Perhaps because of that, I found myself wondering what might prompt a desperate financier to have a change of heart?

Then I read Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household.  It’s a great adventure story about a big game hunter who wants to bag the biggest game of all: a dictator (unnamed, but basically Hitler).  He’s caught while trying, gets away, and ends up on the run, chased by both the British authorities (who cannot sanction an assassination attempt) and the unnamed dictator’s secret police. 

The novel is full of wonderful nature writing, plus Ray-Mears-style survival tactics, deployed by its super-skilled hero.  What if my running banker also attempted to go to ground in the countryside, but more realistically, for which read a whole lot less competently. 

As seems to happen for me with ideas for novels, these questions, together with other notebook preoccupations, collided in slow motion over a number of months, years even, until I found myself pulling the trigger, or writing the first sentence.  And of course the book I eventually ended up with veered off in its own directions as I wrote it.   But it did start out with a pigeon pecking on a banker’s rooftop, and an incompetent outdoorsman making do in a hole in the woods.

Escape and Evasion by Chris Wakling
Published May 3rd 2018 Faber & Faber. Pbk £7.99
City banker Joseph Ashcroft has stolen GBP1.34 billion from his own bank. He has given it - untraceably - to impoverished strangers worldwide, and has fled. Why has he done this? And will he get away with it? Joseph knows that if he leaves the country, he will easily be tracked down. So he opts for hiding close by - first in the city, then in the woods near the home of his estranged family. An ex-soldier, he's adept at the art of camouflage. On Joseph's trail is Ben Lancaster, the bank's head of security and, as it happens, a former army friend with whom he shares a violent, guilt-ridden past. The hunt is on. Escape and Evasion is a tragicomic tale of buried secrets, the lengths a man will go to win back those he loves, and the fallout from a monumental change of heart.

No comments: