Thriller writer Martin Bodenham was born in Leicester, England. His American father was in the US Air Force while his British mother sterilized telephone handsets. After university, he trained as a chartered accountant, working in the UK and USA. He has spent the last twenty-five years in private equity, working either as an investor or advisor. He is the CEO of Advantage Capital, a London-based private equity firm.
He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about finance and money laundering.
How fertile do you think the territory of finance is for crime fiction?
Think Bernie Madoff. Think Allen Stanford. Think Jeff Skilling at Enron. Going back, consider Nick Leeson at Barings, Ivan Boesky, the insider trader, and Michael Milken, the junk bond king. These are all larger than life characters who captured the public’s imagination, in part because of the fascinating scale of their brazen crimes. It is thought the latter two individuals were the inspiration for the character played by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street.
I have spent my career in the private equity market, surrounded by corporate financiers, lawyers, investors and investment bankers. The financial services industry has some giant egos, driven, in equal measure, by greed and fear as fortunes can be made or lost in weeks/months. In such an environment, it is little wonder that some people will choose to cut corners, bend the rules and pursue criminal activity, ranging from insider trading and fraudulent accounting to laundering dirty drug money. The temptations are enormous and, as we have seen recently with the banking scandal, the culture within some financial institutions is geared towards maximising the bonus pool rather than containing outrageous behaviour.
I am certain the world of finance will continue to provide plenty of material on which to base my financial thriller novels. The trick for the writer is to focus his efforts on the tension between greed and fear to create a gripping plot and addictive characters, rather than becoming attached to the everyday minutiae of finance.
Tell us about The Geneva Connection.
The Geneva Connection was published in December 2011 by US publisher Musa Publishing. It’s an organised crime, financial thriller. Much of the detail in the book is based on my twenty-five year career as a private equity investor and corporate financier. The novel is set in the UK, US, Mexico and Switzerland, and is about John Kent, a massively successful private equity player, and what happens when his unbridled ambition collides with the world’s most powerful and most brutal drug cartel.
Brilliant investor John Kent is living his dream. The success of his private equity firm has propelled him into the ranks of the world’s super-rich, allowing him to give his family the security and advantages he hadn’t known in his own childhood.
But John’s dream is shattered with the discovery that his largest investor is bankrolled by the most vicious drug cartel in Mexico. Then one of his partners is murdered to guarantee his silence, and John realises he cannot go to the authorities.
When the ambitious head of the DEA threatens John with incarceration, his nightmare is complete. If he resists the DEA, what will happen to his family while he’s imprisoned? But the alternative is worse. For if John chooses to betray the cartel, he and his family might pay the ultimate price.
Do you think the internet has made money laundering easier and how has it impacted on its detection?
Undoubtedly, the internet has increased the range of opportunities for criminals to launder criminal proceeds, primarily through identity theft, allowing on-line bank accounts to be opened and used to filter money. Criminal organisations can also use the internet to set up commercial websites through which they can supply illegal products and services, while appearing legitimate. The other advantages of the internet are the lack of face to face registration, limited human involvement and the ease and speed at which transactions can occur across the globe. Most professional on-line merchants and payment processors have sophisticated software to analyse transactions to identify unusual patterns and behaviour.
However, most internet sites rely on many thousands of small transactions. The serious dirty money still needs financial intermediaries to collude, particularly when large amounts of laundered money have to be converted into legitimate assets. Take my novel, The Geneva Connection, as an example. The drug cartel needs John Kent’s private equity firm as a conduit, through which drug monies can be channelled. Once Kent’s firm invests the money in authentic portfolio companies, those assets appear completely legitimate, even though they were funded by illegal means. Without the collusion of the private equity intermediary in this case, there would be no money laundering.
How many smurfs does it does it take to launder 2 mill and would they pick an area in the suburbs which is densely populated with banks?
The rule in smurfdom is: avoid mainstream banks and face to face contact. Such characters would stick out a mile in suburbia.
My guess is if the two million is in cash, the best route would be to use the services of a crooked network of currency exchanges—hand over the dodgy money at several branches and take shiny new currency in exchange. They’ll charge a large commission, but that is better than the alternative. The problem with putting it through traditional channels (fast food restaurants etc.) is that the taxman takes his cut! If the money is already in electronic form, then the criminal is going to be concerned with converting it into legitimate assets quickly. That means avoiding the banks and finding a corrupt financial intermediary (think stockbroker, asset manager—you get the drift) and have them turn the money into other assets such as shares and property.
Who are your literary influences?
I have read everything written by John Grisham. I love the way he weaves into his stories snippets of evidence that show his understanding and practical knowledge of the legal profession. It helps build a credible plot. What he gets right, in my view, is the inclusion of just enough legal detail without boring the reader with arcane facts concerning the law. Others, whose work I admire, include Michael Connelly, James Patterson and Robert Ludlum. All of these writers keep their plots moving at a fast pace without sacrificing depth of character and emotion. They make our work as writers appear much easier than it really is. That takes some skill.
One influential writer I must add is H. Rider Haggard as his work was responsible for drawing me into novels as a child. His adventure stories, set in exotic locations, stirred something in my imagination and made me want to keep on reading.
“You know what date is on this coin?”
What do you make of Anton Chigurh’s philosophy in No Country For Old Men?
Chigurh comes across as a remorseless killer. The assignment is all that matters to him. In his mind, everyone he kills is for a reason, no matter how twisted his logic. I think an antagonist like this can work well in novels, provided there are other character traits that mean he is not an automaton. In the novel, Chigurh shows an interesting side to his personality when he gives some of his victims a chance to live by winning a coin toss. That small detail makes an immense difference to the way you perceive his character. While you may not agree with him, you have a sense that the man has his own moral code when he offers the coin toss option to one of his victims with the words: “You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.” In the Coen brothers’ film adaptation, Chigurh is played by Javier Bardem. They gave Bardem an unusual haircut, which also helps to humanise the monster he plays.
I prefer monsters with redeeming traits or character flaws. While I enjoyed the 2004 film, Collateral, in which Tom Cruise plays a contract killer named Vincent, the killer would have been much more interesting if he did not appear so slick and showed some humanising flaws.
As an interesting aside, it was Javier Bardem playing Chigurh that I had in mind when developing the character called “Jivaro” as the head of the Mexican drug cartel in The Geneva Connection.
Jeffrey Robinson, in his seminal book The Laundrymen (1995), shows how Nixon’s misguided stance on marijuana and focus on Mexico in 1969 largely created the cocaine problem we see today in the US. By cracking down on marijuana, bulky and hard to smuggle, he unwittingly escalated the cocaine trade. This in itself is a major part of South American money laundering. Do you agree with Robinson’s analysis and how has the situation changed today?
When I was researching the drug threat to the US for The Geneva Connection, I imagined the main threat was still from the Colombian cartels. However, it turns out that the DEA was massively successful in intercepting the flow of narcotics (mainly cocaine) from Colombia to Florida during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This meant new corridors were opened up by the cartels and we began to see the emergence of the now powerful threat from Mexican criminal organisations. Today that country represents the dominant force in the wholesale supply of narcotics to the US. Some American politicians are sufficiently worried about the stability of Mexico, with its population of one hundred million, that they consider it the biggest threat to US security if it becomes a failed state. Just imagine millions of refugees swamping the border.
I’m not sure we can really blame Nixon. Throughout the western world, we have seen rising demand for illicit drugs. Where there is a demand, supply will find a way to fill the vacuum, whether it be by air, boat or tunnelling under the border as we see in the southwest of the US. Interestingly, US cocaine consumption fell a few years ago and has held steady ever since. Now the growth drugs of choice are heroin, cannabis (again) and methamphetamine, most of which flow in from South America.
If you were offered enough of a commission to launder 100 mill how would you do it to avoid detection?
First let me say that I would never do it. Remember, I am still the CEO of an FSA authorised firm in London! But if I were that way inclined, let me see. Well I think I would look to where the greatest need is in our economy at the moment. Where is the greatest economic pain being felt? The banks are not lending much and yet many good companies are crying out for debt finance. Some of those are so desperate that there is likely to be a small number where the need for cash would outweigh the need to question the source of monies offered. So I guess I would start there, by offering loans to cash-strapped companies and only advance the cash if no questions were asked. Once the loans are repaid, the money would look to the outside world as completely legitimate. Job done.
What are you working on now?
I have just completed my second crime thriller novel. This one is about Josh Traynor, the brightest investor of his generation. Princeton educated and Wall Street trained, when he sets up his own private equity firm in Boston, Massachusetts, investors clamber for places. His firm, CCP, raises seventy-five billion dollars in a few weeks, setting all records for a private equity fundraising. CCP’s first major deal is a twenty-five billion dollar defence asset bought from the US government, desperate to raise money to reduce crippling federal debt. Soon after, Josh discovers he’s been sold a pup. Facing financial ruin, he investigates the US Treasury officials behind the asset sale. What he discovers is a terrifying web of corruption and deceit extending to the top of government, involving blackmail and assassination on an industrial scale.
If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would you choose?
It would have to be Charles Dickens for his prodigious output and his ability to capture the essence of the human condition. In my view, there has never been a writer quite so able to describe the subtleties and frailties of the human spirit quite as he does. Each time I re-read one of his novels, I discover another layer of complexity in the characters. He has to be the master.
Thanks Martin for a great interview.
Find all things Martin Bodenham at his website here.