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What the Most Hyped Financial Thriller of the Summer Gets Right

(Bloomberg) -- Money is haircuts whenever you want. Money, also, is the ability to have people killed. In Cristina Alger’s new novel, The Banker’s Wife (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27), a world of wealth is one of both heady excess and rotting corruption.

A lot of rich men throw their money and power around in this thriller peppered with British secret agents, encrypted messages, and murders to solve. Thankfully, a few good women are prepared to take them to task.

The plot concerns the exposure of trillions of dollars hidden in offshore bank accounts. Marina Tourneau, a resourceful journalist at a society magazine, is taking the lead in getting it to press. But not everyone wants her to go with the story, including her future father-in-law, James Ellis, a billionaire developer running for president. He issues a not-so-veiled threat when telling her about a leak at his Southampton mansion. A pipe burst, and he’s had the caretaker fired. “With a house that valuable, he should have been watching it like a hawk,” he says. “Leaks can be deadly.”

What the Most Hyped Financial Thriller of the Summer Gets Right

Alger has two other female angels in the story: Annabel Werner, the titular wife, is an artist who’s moved to Geneva for her husband, Matthew, who works at the fictional Swiss United Bank; and Zoe Durand, Matthew’s assistant from a small town in the south of France.

Though these heroines barely cross paths (their stories unfold in alternating chapters), their collective actions bring to justice a slew of financial crimes: tax evasion, money laundering, the funding of terrorism.

This isn’t exactly escapist fiction. Alger roots her story in actual events, with mentions of the Flint water crisis and the Stade de France explosions. Some of the banker’s clients are linked to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. For inspiration, Alger studied the revelations of the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, voluminous leaks from law firms that pegged the offshore holdings of politicians and financiers. 

Alger’s comfort with the finance world doesn’t only come from research. Her father was chief executive officer of mutual fund manager Fred Alger Management. After the Chapin School and Harvard, she worked at Goldman Sachs, became a corporate lawyer, then turned to writing. She married a real estate investor a few months after publishing her first book, The Darlings, a story about the unraveling of a New York hedge fund manager’s Ponzi scheme during the 2008 financial crisis. She and her husband have two children and homes on the Upper East Side and in Quogue, N.Y.

She portrays her moneyed class reliably, neither out to wholly ridicule or glamorize it. Sure, there are the skinny socialites with “fancy last names for first names” that Annabel has dubbed “Bonfire Blondes” after Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. But there’s also a seductive pair of 5-inch pumps bought on rue du Rhone that she can hardly walk in: “Two black satin ribbons extending from each heel and laced up around her ankles and lower calves, giving the impression of a ballerina en pointe. … Annabel hoped they looked as expensive as they were. Matthew loved to see her in expensive things. It was the reason he worked as hard as he did, he said. He liked to show her off.” 

The most fun scenes are the ones in which the women are taking action and in danger. Zoe is a phenom in a car chase through the Vaucluse Mountains, navigating hairpin turns in a beat-up Peugeot. Marina makes a run for it to escape from an assassin. Annabel, with the enemy knocking at her door, finds a Swiss army knife just in time to uncover a clue her husband has hidden in the bedroom.

In between, there is a lot of dialogue explaining offshore bank accounts, the legalities, sanctions. Readers may appreciate the refreshers, but there’s something clunky about it.

Alger shines most when she’s describing places—surely there’s a bit of Annabel, the painter, in her. With her, we visit the “grand, redbricked faces, black wooden shutters, cross-hatched windows, and peaked roofs” of a street of homes in London’s Belgravia. And we’re rewarded with some sense of her own reaction to this environment as she steps into one of the homes to visit a relative of Assad’s. “It struck Annabel as remarkable that a man who might be at least tangentially responsible for the mass destruction of whole cities in Syria could live in such a peaceful place.”

As a society journalist myself, I particularly enjoyed Marina’s description of covering parties, especially the exhilaration of being in a room with interesting people, and the way it can feel like “a big-game hunt”—as well as her triumph as a financial-crimes reporter. It’s fun to imagine your own life as a thriller. 

But the more intriguing, fresh tale is that of the three women. Invited into the world of wealth, they flirt with all its trappings, even as they are aware of the sacrifices they make to be part of it. (Will they leave their jobs to support their husbands’ careers? Let someone they know get away with murder?) Their choices about accepting or rejecting the easy life are the real thriller here.

Real-life bankers’ wives who are peers of Alger, 38, will likely agree. Some of them have already selected the novel for their book club at Southampton Arts Center next month.

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