A Fatal Debt

2 Mins read

Written by John Gapper — Set in the imploding world of high finance in both the UK and US, this could have been the novel of our times. Instead, it falls as flat as a Shrove Tuesday pancake.

The garish, over-designed cover was nearly enough to put me off this book, but, encouraged by the fact that the author is a Financial Times journalist, I took the plunge. In truth, John Gapper’s fiction debut is something of a disappointment. It’s a slim volume of just 288 pages so I expected to whizz through sadly I found myself stopping and starting as I found more interesting things to do.

The central character – I hesitate to call such a wet, two-dimensional creation a hero – is Ben Cowper. He is an attending psychiatrist at one of New York’s most prestigious hospitals, and when an emergency admission turns out to be Wall Street bigwig Harry Shapiro, who is also one of the hospital’s biggest benefactors, Ben is eager to take the case. Harry, it appears, has been contemplating suicide after his world fell apart in the economic downturn. Ousted from his role as CEO of a top bank, friendless and feeling hopeless, Harry is on the brink. His wife Nora brings him in after she finds him in despair and clutching a gun.

Ben thinks he can help Harry, but hospital politics intervene and against his better judgment he is forced to release his high-profile patient. It’s a decision he has good reason to regret when, the following day, a TV newsflash announces the discovery of a dead body at Harry’s mansion in the Hamptons. The identity of the body turns Ben’s life upside down and he finds himself in a battle to save his career and his own sanity. Can he uncover the truth?

Gapper’s background in the world of finance helps him to give the narrative an authentic feel. He has also lived in New York for many years, and manages to imbue the book with a sharp sense of place. On the downside, there is too much financial jargon and a surfeit of acronyms – both of which are likely to confuse the average reader. And sadly, the pages are populated with predictable, dull characters such as the grumpy, career-driven police detective; a range of hard-nosed bankers; and assorted enigmatic wives, ex-lovers and girlfriends.

Overall this is a lightweight read that doesn’t engage the reader to any great extent. It could have been so much better with a beefed-up male lead. I’m not advocating a Jack Reacher here, just a guy who actually seems interested in what’s happening around him. I expected so much more from this author. After all, he is chief business commentator and associate editor of the FT.

Ultimately the book leaves you feeling cheated. Which is a pity, as the plotline is imaginative and the final twist something of a surprise. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – in this case, I wish I’d done just that and moved onto another volume.


CFL Rating: 2 Stars

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