Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
If villains are going to travel, why don't you make sure that you are their pilot? If villains want their profits laundered, why don't you make open a laundry? It is not a new idea: Ian Fleming let James Bond work at Universal Export (at least that was the sign on the door), while the entrance to Fleming's other invention, UNCLE, was through a dry cleaner's. The CIA has been using front organisations since the 1950s (see Frances Stonor Saunders ‘Who Paid The Piper?’ for an account of what they did) but Jamie Doward, who is a journalist on The Observer newspaper, thinks that the Agency is more likely to be running a bank today, because only a bank would be big enough to handle the cash flows that international terrorists and their national sponsors can provoke.
Your average Agency operative would not necessarily be a good banker, but given the number of directorships “our kind of people” are prepared to take on it should be possible to run a bank, keep an eye on all the dirty money flowing through it, and analyse the intelligence that cash flow provides. Then you stop the terrorists getting the benefit.
Unfortunately there is a draw back to that theory. Bankers. They are not necessarily knaves, they might just be fools. Regardless, they seem to think they should offer service whether it be right or wrong. Avoiding tax is just the tip of the iceberg: remember that the Swiss bank which has just been caught out in pan-European tax avoidance had a Mexican branch that kept the country's drug gangs going. Doward's theory is that some of the banks are heavily leveraged still: too much debt with too few assets. Nor might such a bank be helped if it were overly dependent on dodgy clients.
So far we have just listed the good guys. Try to imagine what the bad guys are like. Start with headless bodies on beaches, assassination by sniper-fire, poison in champagne, then extend it. Some people just want more pleasure in this life, but there are others intending to get it on the other side and they might not care what happens on the way. Kate Pendragon, a financial analyst attached to the Security Service, is worried by the way things are going, and is bright enough and articulate enough to make her worries clear to the powers that be. That is good.
Kate's boss being found dead, and evidence of dodgy cashflow through his own accounts is not good. A lack of information from Higgs Bank, the CIA front, is not good. The investment or divestment plans of a middle-eastern wealth fund are not good. And Kate's place of escape, her boyfriend's house near the ageing Dungeness nuclear power station? Practices with aircraft crashing? They could all add up to an accident waiting to happen.
The question is why? Meanwhile, as Doward reminds us, all that money is not sitting in bank vaults, it is constantly in motion, buying and selling, faster than the speed of thought. Doward's inspiration is probably Michael Lewis's 2014 book, Flash Boys about “dark pools” of share dealing, though Kate herself may have her real-life inspiration in the financial journalist, Gillian Tett, the author of Fool's Gold (2009). Kate's question must be, why is the next trade going to be the one planned? What harm can it do? Can she stop it in time?
Michael Ridpath has been the go-to name for financial thrillers to date, and I doubt that Toxic will displace him yet. Toxic has too many individuals with too many motives, and though they create an entertaining fog of doubt and double-crossing along the way the tension is not as taut as it could be. At the same time, the technical detail which can make these type of thrillers so interesting is often lacking: this varies from a poor quality post-mortem (which is explained away as being due to budget cuts) to leaving undescribed Kate Pendragon's financial investigations and how she performs them, even while the villains are allowed to perform some of their tests in plain sight. Even so, if you don't want a theory of everything but you would like a thriller which gives you a conspiracy of nearly everything then Toxic might be your tonic.