Wall Street Noir by Peter Spiegelman [Editor]

In the shadowy worlds of film noir and crime fiction, most malefactors are driven by a handful of primal motivations, principally fear, greed, and lust. Given that fear and greed are also said to be the primary motivations of most professional financial traders, setting an anthology of crime fiction in the actual and metonymic worlds of Wall Street would seem to make a lot of sense. After all, while these raw emotions, properly harnessed, help to create the freest and fairest financial system in the world, they spin out of control often enough to create financial disasters on the order of Enron and WorldCom.

But the problem with a book like Wall Street Noir, Akashic Press’ new collection of crime fiction, is that the greed (the motivation for the original crime) and the fear (the motivation for the cover-up after the losses begin to mount) usually manifest themselves in the most complex and bloodless manner imaginable; Enron was allowed to continue for as long as it did because most auditors simply could not make sense of the firm’s insanely complicated strategies. For desperate acts, psychosexual kinks, and a pervasive sense of fatalism, there are better places to look than the office of a CFO.

There are two solutions to this bloodlessness on display in Wall Street Noir. The first is to create a largely realistic financial-district setting in which utterly soulless puppetmasters commit, or have others commit, utterly unrealistic crimes. In one of the stories here, Richard Aleas’ “The Quant,” a fantastically successful and coldly rational arbitrageur who doesn’t want one of his star traders to leave the firm and take his trading strategies with him has the trader’s wife murdered. That may make sense on some level, but not on any that’s visible in this story.

And in Twist Phelan’s “A Trader’s Lot,” the author patiently, and with great clarity, illuminates one corner of the trading world, in this case natural-gas futures traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange, and then tacks on, at the very end, a crime that isn’t unrealistic at all, merely uninteresting — a semi-accidental and easily traceable murder that a panic-stricken trader commits when his position turns disastrously against him. Since it’s unlikely that many readers will come to this anthology looking for a better understanding of energy derivatives-trading, the story is flat and unsatisfying.

Other stories of this sort look at various unsavory trader types as if they were particularly virulent bugs under a microscope, characterizing them as stereotypical “hedge fund assholes,” and “power-obsessed bastards,” as a character in one story ever so subtly puts it. The thing is, even bastards have emotions and motivations, and to see them trapped by the consequences of their own cupidity is compelling only when we can understand, and even to some degree sympathize with, what got them there. Otherwise, when these characters face the music, one can’t help but feel that the author’s true motivation is enjoying making them suffer (in contemporary fiction, the only minority one is permitted to demonstrate unalloyed contempt for is the wealthy.)

In short, there’s an undercurrent of envy in too many of these stories – a sense that the author is experiencing a kind of vicarious schadenfreude when these one-dimensional bastards get what they deserve.

The more-successful stories in this anthology – and there are some first-rate ones – seem to acknowledge that the really interesting element in financial dirty-dealing is not the trading, but the trader, and they make the effort to get inside their protagonists’ unsavory psyches. John Burdett’s “The Enlightenment of Magnus McKay,” for example, is a lurid but very compelling tale of an uber-sleazy “alpha male” attorney who will do anything for his client, the barbaric Thai-Chinese businessman Samson Lee, including facilitating the torture of a Colombian drug-dealing rival’s family. When the Colombian blows up the Bangkok torture chamber, killing his own kid brother along with Lee’s men, the attorney escapes to his prostitute girlfriend’s family home near the Cambodian border. Once there, he badly miscalculates the prostitute’s interest in three-way sex and compounds the error by marrying her for reasons that are less than sincere, and then immediately goes on an opium bender. Her revenge while he’s in a druggy haze is “bloodless” in a horrifyingly literal way.

A grotesque person in a grotesque set of circumstances? Absolutely. But a stereotype? No way. The story isn’t the least bit realistic, but what’s far more important is that we have gotten to know the lead character in memorably sordid detail.

“The Day Trader in the Trunk of Cleto’s Car” delivers, in a style reminiscent of Elmore Leonard’s colloquial low-life stories, exactly what the title promises, with grungy black humor. And editor Peter Spiegelman, who also contributes a thoughtful introduction, adds a story, “Five Days at the Sunset,” about a desperate derivatives trader on the run — or, rather, at a total standstill in a bleak motel in South Dakota — that suggests he really understands that noir fiction, like film noir, is at heart about how people are relentlessly hunted down by their inability to control their own appetites and weaknesses.

Too few stories in this book seem to understand this, or to truly get inside the skin of these trapped creatures. What they miss is that most good crime fiction, whatever else it delivers in fidelity to its genre, conveys a sense of inexorability, sometimes bleak, sometimes Byzantine, but, because we understand why the characters are swirling down the toilet, always compelling. It’s hard enough to convey a sense of inexorability over the course of a short story (which is why, for example, the novels of Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard are so much better than their short pieces). But it’s that much harder when we don’t know, and don’t care, how the characters got there. In too many of these stories, we learn more about the authors’ contempt for their characters than what makes the characters genuinely contemptible to begin with.

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