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A Fatal Debt: A Novel Hardcover – June 26, 2012
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A Journalist Writes Fiction by John Gapper
I know what you're thinking--isn't a lot of journalism fiction? Well, not at the Financial Times, where I've worked for the past 25 years (yes, an entire quarter of a century) and which has high standards. I write a column there about business and finance and have covered investment banks for many years, since well before the 2008 crash. But writing A Fatal Debt, my Wall Street mystery novel, was a very different experience.
It took me a long time to come round to the idea of even trying. My wife, Rosie Dastgir, is a fiction writer--her debut novel A Small Fortune has just been published by Riverhead--and I always thought we should stick to a marital division of labor. I'd do the factual stuff and she'd do fiction. I was afraid of branching out into something unknown, at which I might fail.
But it had been suggested to me before--agents and publishers like the idea that an author might know about Wall Street since it's a closed world to most. When I'd written a non-fiction book in the UK about the collapse of Barings bank in 1997 (All That Glitters, which I co-wrote with Nick Denton) a few people had told me to try fiction. I almost took the plunge, but pulled back.
Then, after the 2008 crash, when other journalists seemed to have taken all the good ideas for a non-fiction book, I thought maybe I should finally give it a go, and I set out on what became A Fatal Debt.
Since I wasn't even sure that I could do it, I took a journalistic approach at first--I relied heavily on research. I went round and talked to many people on Wall Street--even the wives of hedge fund bigwigs--about their experiences. I spent time with psychiatrists, since Ben Cowper, the narrator, is a New York psychiatrist who gets enmeshed with Harry Shapiro, the former head of Wall Street bank that has crashed.
One thing that surprised me was how ready most of them were to talk. As a journalists, I am used to interviews but there is always an unspoken tension – how will you use what they tell you and how will they be portrayed? In the corporate world, where people are used to the media and often have public relations representatives, it can become a negotiation.
Furthermore, such people are usually unwilling to discuss their personal lives--they regard it as a professional transaction. It would be unthinkable in the middle of chatting to a bank chief executive about the progress of his business to ask him about his hidden hopes and fears--what keeps him up in the middle of the night. If he revealed his emotions, it would worry his investors.
Researching fiction, it turned out, was another thing altogether. Once they were convinced that I meant what I said--that nothing they said would be quoted or used in a way that identified them, some unveiled the most extraordinary details about their lives and work.
Eventually, though, I had actually to sit down at a desk with a blank computer screen and start to write. I can't express how strange I found the process of letting my imagination loose, rather than relying (as I have always done) on notes and hard facts. There turned out to be a whole untapped world out there, somewhere inside my mind.
It was disturbing, as if I was losing my moorings and drifting into a dream-like state. At times, when I'd written all day in the Brooklyn Writers Center, immersed in the characters and story, I felt as if I was waking from a dream when I halted. I was groggy, and had to go home and take a nap.
I expect practiced novelists can slip in and out of the creative state easily, but as a novice I found it testing. Even then, I still unconsciously clung to the security of facts. One day, I thought of a plot twist that required a parking garage beneath the swanky apartment building where Shapiro lives in Manhattan. Oh dear, I thought. The real-life building I was thinking of didn't have one. Then I realized. Hold on, you can just make it up. It's a novel. What a liberation!
All the same, it was a relief to return to my day job with the first draft finished, and be surrounded again by colleagues, facts and daily deadlines, all the day-to-day scaffolding that keeps one in place. The novelist's life is rewarding--to create an imaginary world story rather than recounting the factual existence of others--but mentally tough.
One thing that writing fiction lessened in me was the fear of failure. Journalism is a craft to be learned--some are better at it than others but there are rules to follow. Constructing fiction--even genre fiction like a mystery--is much more mysterious. An author has to find not only a story but his or her own way of writing.
That is an enormous challenge but it means that everyone, apart from a few hugely gifted writers, faces the same insecurity. I'm sure I'll be as sensitive as any writer to a bad review but just to have finished it and to see it on shelves means plenty in itself. I might even try again.
Advance praise for A Fatal Debt
“Is John Gapper a journalist with a novelist’s heart, or a novelist with a journalist’s instinct? Either way, he tells a great story.”—Lee Child, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Reacher series
“John Gapper puts together an irresistible package: A psychiatrist pursuing a Wall Street murder mystery, while fighting for his reputation and maybe his life. This is a neatly crafted and well-written thriller, which shows why Gapper is a must-read columnist in the Financial Times. An audacious, assured debut.”—David Ignatius, columnist for The Washington Post and author of Bloodmoney
“Rarely does one read a first novel so self-assured, sharp, and compelling. A Fatal Debt offers a terrific premise and wonderful characters. It takes off like a rocket and doesn’t stop until its explosive conclusion.”—Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author of Buried Secrets and Vanished
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Top Customer Reviews
And so, Ben Cowper must try and find out what happened to save his career only to come up against some selfish, deceitful, and unrealistic supporting characters. In what might have been a good plotline, A FATAL DEBT seemed to get bogged down in parts that seemed way too improbable and characters I just didn't care about so really didn't care what happened to them. The twists that Gapper puts into the story could be good if again, they were with characters this reader could have worried about but didn't. I think the story line itself just had too many unbelievable parts and although it started off well, it just didn't hold my attention throughout.
On the positive side, the story is fast paced and a quick read. The writing mechanics are good and the story is interestingly written in the first person.
After the first few chapters, I was skeptical that this would be my type of mystery. But as Cowper made more and more hormone-driven and panicky mistakes, I found myself feeling anxious, distracted, and worried between readings. While that unease was not always pleasant for me, it was a direct result of a story well told. Gapper overcame my initial ambivalence towards his book with compelling characters - although I never "got" the instant new romance or even his prior one, for that matter - and a constantly moving storyline.
I would not categorize this as a "thriller", and it is not a mystery in the sense of a procedural, yet it piqued my curiosity much like the better mysteries I have read this year. Gapper develops his main character quite well and I got reeled in despite my initial indecision. I particularly enjoyed this book as a sneak peek a psychiatrist's daily life, especially how "do no harm" can actually become a very grey area.
Often I found myself wishing grievous harm on several of Gapper's characters, all the while hoping that Ben Cowper would become a better doctor, a better person, and maybe even a returning character.
The author of A Fatal Debt has spent his career in the banking industry and clearly knows his stuff regarding the factual details of the financial aspects of this story. In fact, as someone with no education in this field, I found the explanations pretty complicated and difficult to follow. (I guess that's how the banking industry got itself into such trouble in the real world. It really is so convoluted that I'm not sure the people in the middle of it really understand it!)
Unfortunately, John Gapper knows much more about Wall Street the either medicine or fiction writing. I found some of the actions of the main character to be downright unbelievable. For example, why take someone as a patient, knowing that would give them Doctor - Patient confidentiality rights when you suspect their involvement in a crime and that you won't be able to use any of the information you discover?
The book started with some promise, but by the end of it I just was ready for it to be over. Completely forgettable.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
An IM shot of Haldol and Ativan works in 15 seconds? Not in my experience as an MD....Published 8 months ago by Clark
Ben Cowper, an attending psychiatrist at the prestigious New York-Episcopal Hospital, is stunned to learn the identity of the emergency patient he's just been assigned to treat:... Read morePublished on April 5, 2013 by Amazon Customer
If you aren't sure if you want to read this book, do not stop before page 68! That is the first curve! Read morePublished on April 4, 2013 by Margie
Ben Cowper, a psychiatrist at a prestigious hospital in New York, has just been assigned an emergency patient. Read morePublished on March 18, 2013 by Jennifer Cameron-Smith
I'm no financier, but I do enjoy a good mystery. The recent financial crises and problems on Wall Street have impacted most Americans, and this book portrays a stressed out... Read morePublished on October 21, 2012 by CG
I first must say that I read A Fatal Debt: A Novel over a few weeks, reading several other books along the way. Read morePublished on October 5, 2012 by JO
"A Fatal Debt" is John Gapper's debut novel and it is a truly outstanding effort.
Its about a psychiatrist drawn into the web of Wall Street intrigue--- and death. Read more
Predictable books are ok on occasion. This one goes overboard, there is some suspense but it was easy to see through too much in this storyPublished on September 28, 2012 by Jeanette Stingley
This book is a wonderful thriller that takes place in a different setting, Wall Street. Usually, these thrillers take place in some small town or mid-size city where the author can... Read morePublished on September 5, 2012 by Dr. Redhawk