This financial thriller by William Burton McCormick and John Christmas was inspired partly by the real-life experiences of whistleblower Christmas, who worked for a corrupt Latvian bank. The bank collapsed, information about its billions in bad assets was suppressed, and the Latvian government covered its losses.
In KGB Banker, we meet Chicago banking executive Robert Vanags. His first action is to turn down a loan on ethical grounds – he’s getting fed up with the corner-cutting in the financial industry. Recently widowed, he’d like to make a fresh start. An unexpected opportunity to do so arises when a head hunter recruits him for an executive position with the $70 billion Turaida Bank in Riga, Latvia, the country his parents emigrated from. This new job sounds like the perfect professional and personal fit.
His interviews go well but as he’s leaving the bank he meets an employee named Ēricks Helmanis in the elevator. Helmanis has one word of advice for him: “Run.” Bob ignores this puzzling admonition, along with a few other signs that all is not as it should be – notably, the mysterious deaths of his British predecessor and his wife, reportedly in a diving accident. He takes the job.
Bob doesn’t know about the clandestine security station on the bank’s top floor that a man named Kārlis maintains, under the direction of a shadowy Russian figure. The station’s electronics secretly monitor everything, including Bob’s office, his apartment, phones, computer and even his 17-year-old son David. Kārlis knows about the elevator conversation and that Ēricks is hoping to meet with reporters. Most of them are in the bank’s pocket and represent no threat, except a young reporter named Santa Ezeriņa, who writes for an obscure newspaper.
His fourth day in the new job, Bob and a large bank contingent attend the funeral of Ēricks Helmanis, who apparently committed suicide. There he meets Agnese Avena, an executive at the International Development Bank, with which Turaida often partners. Agnese is inconsolable. He also meets Latvian politician Dāvids Osis. Osis is a true national hero, a member of parliament, and a champion of the European Union. Bob’s father idolised him, and Bob named his son after him. On the way out of the cemetery, he has a chance to exchange words with Osis. When reporter Santa Ezeriņa confronts them, she’s quickly apprehended and roughed up by several security thugs.
While Bob has some reasons to feel uneasy about activity at the bank, he’s also preoccupied with an affair he’s started with Agnese. Turaida has been making some suspicious loans, and Bob chooses to reveal his misgivings at a meeting that will determine whether the international banking community should regard Turaida as solid. He reveals that most of its loans are made to only a dozen shell companies owned, in turn, by only five people – all of them Russian oligarchs who can’t receive loans from EU banks due to sanctions.
Turaida officials make excuses, but from here on, they are highly suspicious of him. The only employee he can trust is his elderly assistant, Evgeny, and on the outside, the legendary David Osis. In a visit to Osis’s home, Robert shares the evidence he’s collected and is reassured that reform is forthcoming. But before long, not only is his information discredited, it’s apparent his life is on the line. Maybe his last hope is to trust that crazy reporter, Santa Ezeriņa, who is never one to swallow the official story.
Bankers and their secrets, oligarchs and their dirty dealing, politicians and their agendas, reporters and their dangerous probing. In a sea of betrayal, it’s all Bob can do to keep himself and David safe. As this intriguing story spools out, that goal seems less and less likely.
William Burton McCormick and John Christmas have both lived in Latvia and establish the setting convincingly. Before you think some of the financial shenanigans are a little far-fetched, recall what has actually taken place there in recent decades, and you’ll conclude the set-up for this fictional story is not far afield. Plus it’s a cracking good adventure for both Bob and the journalist Santa. She sees the flashing neon warning signs that Bob tries so hard to ignore.
If KGB Banker sounds interesting, try the Swedish crime show Moscow Noir.
Milford House Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars