Sex, money, and more than a whiff of criminal activity enliven this too-good-to-be-true real-life business drama.
With the exception of Bringing Down the House (2002), which profiled six MIT students who scammed the Vegas casinos, Mezrich has made a career in fictional thrillers (Reaper, 1998, etc.), which doesn’t make him unqualified to write nonfiction but definitely makes him suspect when the going gets pulpy. After an author’s note that tells us all the main characters’ names have been changed, we meet our bright young star: John Malcolm, an ex-Princeton football player who lands a job as a Nikkei trader in Osaka in the 1990s, working for Kidder Peabody superstar Dean Carney. After an accounting screw-up leaves Malcolm’s division unemployed, he gets hired by Barings and meets the venerable British bank’s Singapore hotshot, Nick Leeson. In January 1995, when an earthquake rattles Japan and the Nikkei, it turns out that not only had Leeson had been betting billions on the Nikkei rising, he’d been betting the company’s own money with no client to back it up. The resulting catastrophe almost destroyed Barings, which laid off 1,200 people, including Malcolm. He bounced back with a job at Carney’s hot new hedge fund, where rules were broken and scruples shattered in the name of ungodly amounts of profit. Here’s where the tale begins to resemble one of Mezrich’s thrillers: the Yakuza show up, and there’s even a gorgeous girlfriend whispering get-out-before-it’s-too-late warnings in Malcolm’s ear. The author knows how to plot his story, giving his protagonist moral dilemmas to solve at regular, well-timed intervals and painting it all against a Boiler Room–like background of easy money, sports cars, and frat-boy Americans going wild in Tokyo’s seedy underbelly. But the beats are too perfectly synchronized, the action too perfectly dramatic, and the people too reminiscent of stock movie characters.
Undeniably fun, but readers may well wonder just how much of this could actually be true.