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    Capital is the hardest thing in the world to create, and the easiest thing in the world to destroy.
        -The Month of the Leopard

One of the great delights of James M. Cain's Double Indemnity is that, although he is a relatively honest man when the story opens, it quickly becomes evident that during his years as an insurance salesman Walter Neff's given plenty of thought to how to pull the perfect scam.  Similarly, James Harland, the pseudonymous author of Month of the Leopard and a financial columnist by trade, appears to have spent a good portion of the time he's spent watching his Bloomberg stock ticker roll by trying to figure out how you could make a killing by fiddling with those seemingly uncontrollable numbers that rule the modern economy.  The result of his speculation is a thoroughly contemporary thriller in which the criminal mastermind has targeted entire national economies and wields the frightening ability to cast almost any country, possibly even the world, into chaos, merely by manipulating stock prices and currency valuations.

It's long been the faith of free market theorists that, in the absence of government interventions, stock exchanges could become mediums in which all that would matter would be information and that only the market is really capable of the the split second reactions and the ruthless weeding out of bad stocks and impartial investing in good ones that can make for a truly efficient economy.  This is almost certainly true, but Harland's novel serves as a healthy reminder that the information being fed into the markets is far from perfect and remains just as subject to foul play by dishonest operators as it was in the time of the Jay Goulds or, more recently, the Hunt brothers.  As we now learn that Osama bin Laden may have pocketed big money by playing the markets prior to his terror attacks, Harland's warning seems particularly, and tragically, timely.

The story here is fast moving and reasonably suspenseful.  The final scenes as the heroes race against both the clock and the ticker are especially well done, as the action centers around an information war much more than around the chop socky of a James Bond film.  The book benefits greatly from the author's knowledge of the financial world, a fascinating milieu that we all need to understand better as it exerts ever more influence over our lives.

My only two complaints are about the really grotesque scene of violence that opens the novel, which is far too graphic and sadistic, and with the product placements, so reminiscent of early Stephen King.  If it is necessary to have traders pounding down candy all the time, it's certainly not necessary to mention the brand name of each confection; rather than adding immediacy it eventually gets distracting.

Overall though it's a brisk and exciting adventure set on what may be the next great battlefield, the stock exchange floor.  It's all the more frightening because it's so plausible and because the crime it depicts could/would affect us all.


Grade: (B-)