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Writing about financial crime

Last night I joined the Mesdames of Mayhem at a meeting of the University Women’s Club of Mississauga. This particular branch we visited keeps a keen eye on international affairs and the Mesdames talked to them about about mystery writers around the world whose stories focus on a plethora of social issues: racism, immigration, chemical warfare, child abuse, sex trafficking, organized crime and terrorism.

I spoke on financial corruption.

I started my Pat Tierney novels when I was a journalist writing about finance. I was interviewing financial planners and investment managers, and attending their conferences. I understood the issues they faced. There was – still is and always will be – a lot of concern bad apples in the financial services industry: corrupt advisors and money managers. Because the industry industry revolves around money, it provides an opportunity for people who are clever and greedy enough to challenge the system.

I was horrified when I heard about Bernie Madoff, the New York money manage who swindled his clients out of $65 billion in a massive Ponzi scam. And we had scumbags of our own in Canada, such as Patrick Kinlin, a charming—and most of them are very charming—Bay Street financial advisor who operated a classic “confidence scam.” He’d get close to seniors, dazzle them and their families with his interest and concern. Then he’d sell them bogus stocks and bonds, and drain their bank accounts.

I worried that the people who were managing my money might be up to the same tricks. (And just a few days ago, the CBC reported on illegal investment fees that DIY [online] investors are being charged. No-frills investors should not be paying trailer fees because they don’t receive financial advice.)

All this resonated with me. And when you’re starting a novel that can take anywhere from three to 10 years to complete, you need a topic that resonates, that keeps you motivated. So I decided that my central character would be a financial planner, and before long the character of Pat Tierney took shape in my mind. She has the traits of the people I admire most in the financial services industry, people who want to see tougher penalties for fraudsters and maintain that the system is currently too soft on offenders. Pat is a champion of small investors. She has sleepless nights when stock markets are down. She hates to see ordinary people, people who’ve worked hard to pay off their mortgages and build up retirement nest-eggs, get ripped off.

And I started writing in the financial thriller sub-genre. Which I had never heard of back then. But I soon discovered a whole group of authors who were writing about financial crime. Readers around the world can relate to their stories because they have to do with money. We all need it but some people will do anything to get more of it. Rob banks, skim money from  clients’ investment accounts. Steal identities in order to write cheques and take out mortgages and credit cards in those people’s names. Some people will even murder for money.

And big financial crimes can have big repercussions: flash stock market crashes, and veteran financial institutions disappearing almost overnight.

One of my favorite financial thriller writers is Michael Sears, a former Wall Street bond trader. I met Michael in 2013 when we were both on a panel titled Easy Money at Bouchercon, the big international mystery conference that was held in Albany, N.Y. that year.

Michael’s series features protagonist, Jason Stafford, who was once a Wall Street bond trader, but made some very bad moves and landed in jail. After two-years in federal prison, Jason is prohibited from taking work that involves handling money—which is a basic requirement for any job on Wall Street. But due to his financial crime expertise, one firm wants him to quietly look into irregularities in the books of one of their junior traders. A guy whose body was just pulled from the Long Island Sound. Soon Jason is facing threats, and more people are dying.

This is from the opening of the first Jason Stafford mystery, Black Fridays:

I was the first alumnus from my MBA class to make managing director. I was also the first to go to prison.

Two years. For an accounting shuffle! Ridiculous. You pay a fine and you move on. But the Feds wanted my scalp. Well,  it was a half-billion-dollar accounting shuffle, which had come close to bringing down a major investment bank. The stock had plummeted. Investors were outraged. The president’s mother-in-law had lost close to $10,000. The Feds needed someone to put in the stocks, and get pelted with stones. I was their man.

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