THE TWAIN MAXIM
BY CLEM CHAMBERS
No Exit, £6.99
by Zoe Strimpel
“A MINE is a hole in the ground with a fool at the bottom and a crook at the top,” says a character called Samuel Clemens at the beginning of this thriller. It’s 1900 when Clemens (pen name Mark Twain) uttered this “maxim” and – according to Chambers and his latest reality-rammed tale of financial crookery and dangerous scamming – it still holds true today.
As in Chambers’ 2009 sleeper hit The Armageddon Trade, characters rove the world like it’s a small paddling pool – prostitutes in the Caribbean one minute, sticky African airports the next, highways in Virginia the next. It’s this high velocity of movement and action that lends the book grit – and which can also make it hard to follow, particularly for those not as well versed in the workings of the stock market’s puppet-masters as Chambers.
Jim, the boy-trader who made billions by being able to predict the movement of stocks and shares in The Armageddon Trade (and who nearly died saving the world), is back – and dating a tough special agent called Jane. While buying into a new mine in Congo to help a friend, Jim’s broker goes missing in the jungle. Enter Baz Mycock, ruthless, whisky-and-stripper-dependent mine “promoter”. Mycock and cronies locate mines in godforsaken, war-torn parts of the world, trump them up for the stock market with promises of trendy minerals, then disappear. Now it’s in the Democratic Republic of Congo, near the border with Rwanda, that Mycock has chosen his mine. When Jim enters the fray in pursuit of his broker, he crosses paths with an enslaved Congolese child soldier known as “Man Bites Dog”, Mycock and his malevolent, impenetrable schemes – and all of it taking place under the glare of the dangerous volcano, Nyiragongo. Jim is battling against time and evil, with the promise of untold mineral riches fuelling the action on both sides.
Chambers has an odd writing style, but it’s a chipper, pleasing one, with a certain unique momentum to it. The Twain Maxim is not just another tale of financial skulduggery – or of foul-play in one of the world’s most violent, steamy areas. It’s replete with disturbing realities – look up any given detail in it and you’ll be surprised at how much is true. For this reason, it’s not just a gripping read, but an eye-opening one.
THE NANNY RETURNS
EMMA MCLAUGHLIN AND NICOLA KRAUS
Simon and Schuster, £12.99
by Zoe Strimpel
THE Nanny Diaries, published in 2002, shot to the top of the best-seller lists for its meticulous exposé of the spine-tingling behaviour of a certain type of Manhattan elite. Nan Hutchinson, a student when she was a nanny at family “X”, finally left her gruesome job after it all became too much.
Ten years later, Nan is married to a Harvard hunk. They return to New York after a stint of globetrotting, and find themselves a nice townhouse to do up. Nan wants to get her consulting business off the ground and enjoy the feeling of finally being settled. But all this is scuppered by her husband’s announcement that he wants to start a family – now. For Nan, kids of her own are not on the agenda.
But then fifteen-year-old Grayer X, who she nannied a decade ago, turns up on her doorstep, a depressed and angry teenager. He’s found the hate-riddled, truth-talking “nanny cam” recording she made on her last night in his family’s service – and wants answers. Nan becomes racked with guilt and now feels obliged to help Grayer and his younger brother, the ridiculously named Stilton, get through their parents’ hideous divorce.
Now Nan’s back in the corrupt world of Upper East Side rich, among the people who value money over love every time. Only this time, the economy is floundering and those who staked everything on the material world are about to pay the consequences in the form of some very angry children – and emptying bank accounts.
It all feels a bit tired now – the credit crunch and the corrupt moneyed Manhattan elite both being slightly passé storylines. But for a bit of candy floss – with the odd moment of poignancy – it’s not too bad.
Simon and Schuster, £12.99
by Timothy Barber
JOSEPH Kanon is far from the first author to be seduced by the dramatic potential of Hollywood in its silver screen heyday – William Boyd, Paul Auster and James Ellroy are among those who have made it a well-trodden path. But that’s no bad thing – like the labyrinthine film noirs Hollywood churned out at the time and that inspire Stardust, a story told well is a story worth telling, no matter how derivative it seems.
At its heart, Kanon’s story is as noir as they come. Ben Collier, a US serviceman returning from the war in 1945, goes to Hollywood where his brother Danny, a movie director, has fallen to his death from a hotel balcony. The cops say it was suicide, but Ben sees things differently. His investigations take him deep inside the Hollywood studio system, into a dalliance with his brother’s widow (a glamorous German actress) and eventually into danger.
The suspicious death, the femme fatale, the web of intrigue – so far, so formulaic. But Kanon raises the game by sewing some higher issues into proceedings, in the form of historical events that precede and follow his story. The Hollywood he depicts is in the early stages of the “reds under the bed” blacklisting scandal, while the recent legacy of the war, and particularly of the Holocaust, hangs darkly over everything. Gradually, both become ever more important factors in the plot. Even if it’s not quite as taut and suspenseful as – for instance – James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, this is an elegant, atmospheric read.