Norb Vonnegut is the seriously underappreciated author of three glittery thrillers about fiscal malfeasance. This may not sound like a red-hot franchise, but he has made it one. With Top Producer (2009), The Gods of Greenwich (2011) and now The Trust, he is three for three in his own improbably sexy genre.
Mr Vonnegut dreams up diabolically elegant business crimes, then sends smart-talking characters to follow the money. He draws upon his own Wall Street experience (with Morgan Stanley, among other employers) to provide the sound of insider acumen. “I’ve had 14 managers over the last 10 years,” Grove O’Rourke says at the start of the new book. Grove was the stockbroker hero of Top Producer, and now he’s back for an encore.
“I’d call them an endangered species,” he says about his string of callous, browbeating bosses, “except the supply is endless.”
Grove is first seen in The Trust crouching under his desk at a Wall Street firm called SKC, to have a private phone conversation. So he’s glad to escape these confines when this book throws temptation his way. After a sailing “accident” kills Palmer Kincaid, Grove’s client and mentor, Grove is invited to become a trustee of Kincaid’s Palmetto Foundation. This philanthropic organisation is based in Charleston, SC, one of the very picturesque destinations that The Trust finds time to visit. Sullivan’s Island and the Turks and Caicos Islands are others.
But at the genteel and very Southern Palmetto, the only other trustees turn out to be Kincaid's trophy wife, JoJo, and daughter, Claire. This gives Grove a swing vote. That will be important once he figures out how risky the Palmetto Foundation’s activities really are. “Five to 10,” he says to JoJo at one point. “Percent?” she asks. “Years,” he says.
Mr Vonnegut further revs up The Trust by going beyond Palmetto’s questionable business dealings. He also throws in a Catholic charity that turns out to be financing an adult porn superstore in Fayetteville, NC. The angry burghers of the local community near the store are represented by Biscuit Hughes, a tubby lawyer who is as much fun as his name.
Biscuit, who will eventually join forces with Grove, tries to track down the store’s owners. He does it with the white-collar cleverness that is Mr Vonnegut’s specialty. Going straight for the owners will get him nowhere. And Biscuit knows it. So he ferrets out the CPA’s who filed each investor’s Form 990 (“Return of Organisation Exempt From Income Tax”) with the IRS. The accountant for something called the Catholic Fund is particularly blunt when it comes to his client’s connection to a porn retailer. He asks if Biscuit wants to buy the business. “Everything is on the table,” the laughably pious accountant says, “when children’s lives are at stake.”
There’s enough novelty to this plot to set The Trust apart from garden-variety business thrillers, the ones in which Bernard Madoff stand-ins run Ponzi schemes. Anyway, Mr Vonnegut is just getting started. Soon Grove is dealing with a priest of the Maryknoll order who makes big-money deals with Palmetto for the sake of maimed Filipino orphans — or so he says. But the Manila Society for Children at Risk turns out to be one more part of a complex and devious shell game.
One of the book’s neatest tricks is Grove’s way of using an analytics Web site, to see how much online traffic the dubious-sounding charities attract. When he finds out that the charities aren’t popular enough to account for the sums being donated, he knows that he’s digging in the right direction. As he narrates The Trust, Grove throws in jaundiced asides about how Wall Street does business. Mr Vonnegut may or may not know whereof he speaks, but it helps that he explains stockbrokers while using the royal “we”. When a broker signs a noncompete agreement, “it’s like enlisting in the Marines,” he writes, “except we make more money, and nobody shoots at us.”
Another of Mr Vonnegut’s favourite ploys is writing about how families like the Kincaids (or, in The Gods of Greenwich, anyone with an art collection and a 27-bathroom house) spend money. “With $10 million you fly first-class,” he says. “With $50 million you fly private, NetJets or one of its competitors. With $200 million you’re wondering where to park your Citation X in Monte Carlo.”
Inventive as most of it is, The Trust does fall back on some ho-hum conventions of the action thriller. So Grove finds himself in physical jeopardy, and Mr Vonnegut’s writing style takes a temporary dive. (“His eyes widened. He leered at me, his smile sadistic.” “Suddenly, my face became his speed bag.”) But The Trust keeps clichés to a minimum. And even the taunting has snap. (“You know what whoosh money is?” “Whoosh it were still here.”) When the prime villain in this story starts bragging, the battle cry is this: “You’ll never untangle my spaghetti.”
© 2012 The New York Times
Minotaur Books/Thomas Dunne Books
306 pages; Price $25.99