A first-time novelist at age 61, Michael Sears displays a flair for description in his debut financial thriller, Black Fridays.
When a Wall Street executive tries too hard to compensate for his lack of height, Sears’ main character, Jason Stafford, observes: “His desk sat on a three-inch riser — it helped a little, but when he stood up he still knew he was short.” And when Stafford gently checks whether his 5-year-old autistic son is finally asleep after a busy day, he says his boy smells “of Crest and hot dog.” Perfect.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read a pop thriller so immediately captivating as Black Fridays. From the first page, the book is filled with mysterious deaths and disappearances, strong lessons in the art of negotiating, a gym bag full of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of casino chips, offshore bank accounts, and coldblooded murder. And there’s Stafford, an ethically challenged former Wall Street trader who is trying to reclaim his life and his son after two years in prison.
Barred from his former profession because of a half-billion-dollar scandal he caused, Stafford gets out of prison and takes the only Wall Street job he can — investigating a possible conspiracy that has skimmed hundreds of millions of dollars from complex trades over many years.
No one knows the tricks of the trade better.
As a trader, Stafford bent the rules and got caught. Now, after serving his time, he still bends a few rules and tries not to get caught. Since he’s doing it for the long-term security of his son, readers are inclined to cut him some slack on his ethical lapses.
While Sears tells a nice tale of Wall Street intrigue, based on a real case, what really kept me turning pages was Stafford’s developing relationship with his son, whom he calls the Kid.
There are moments of complete frustration and then progress as Stafford learns to cope with the Kid’s compulsions and meltdowns.
One shortcoming of the book is Stafford’s relationship with his ex-wife and her new husband. She’s an ex-model and an alcoholic. Their dealings never get beyond the cliché.
“She strode across the yard like it was the main runway at Fashion Week,” Stafford says of his first view of her — she’s dressed in jeans and cowboy boots — after he gets out of prison.
There’s no preaching in Black Fridays. And Sears, a former bond trader himself, gives an unflinching portrayal of Wall Street. Money rules. Making money and bending rules to do it — as long as you don’t get caught — is part of the culture.
In the end, Stafford pulls off a stunt that would bring a smile to the face of Lisbeth Salander, the avenging angel of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It left me anxiously waiting for Sears’ next book and the further adventures of Stafford and the Kid.