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An asset stripper’s life becomes complicated by the murders of people linked to his family and various threats to the American company he plans to acquire in this debut thriller.

Maximilian “Maxi” de Beaulieu d’Appremont isn’t even aware of the corpse on his property until authorities arrive at his French château. The decapitated body may belong to Chris Ward, from whom Maxi had just received a cryptic note requesting his help. Ward had worked for the Beaulieu family company in Africa more than a decade ago, as had Michael Holcomb, another recent murder victim who, at the time of his demise, had Maxi’s address in his briefcase. It seems a man named Vincent Kaine has launched an inquiry into Maxi, believing he knows the location of hidden money Kaine and others collected illicitly. As this connects to Maxi’s dead Uncle Charles, he peruses his relative’s extensive diaries while looking for information on Mark Ramaloh, the man now investigating him. At the same time, Maxi is in the process of purchasing RTG Environmental Engineering Inc., an Alabama company on the verge of bankruptcy. His visit to the company in Birmingham is met with unveiled animosity from employees. They’re upset about a European buying RTGEE but may also be aware that Maxi suspects ongoing fraud within the company. Maxi befriends—and quickly falls for—whip-smart CEO assistant Linda Porter, one of the individuals who discovered the fraud. Soon sinister notes become physical intimidation, putting Maxi and Linda in danger from incensed workers or possibly someone from Charles’ past.

Berger’s lengthy narrative is predominantly dialogue that’s rife with dense backstory (characters tied to Charles or Kaine) and business dealings. The tale not only succeeds in shedding light on the practice of asset stripping, but also manages to demonstrate its value. Maxi’s purchase of RTGEE, for example, will lead to job losses in Birmingham but simultaneously save the parent company and secure thousands of positions in four other countries. Corresponding business transactions are always comprehensible, courtesy of the author’s sharp but meticulous prose ensuring clarity. Maxi is a curious protagonist. He’s an intelligent businessman who realistically isn’t trained in fisticuffs; when a crowbar-brandishing employee accosts him, he’s understandably shaken. In the same vein, Maxi does very little on his own. Pertinent details on Charles’ history, Ramaloh’s background, or RTGEE workers are gathered by other characters, who relay the information to Maxi. One of those players is Linda, and the romance she shares with Maxi is convincing, effectively heightening a later scene when threats in Birmingham instigate someone’s serious injury. Despite its bulk and a bevy of characters, the story doesn’t pile on mysteries, concentrating mostly on Maxi’s predicament in America. Regardless, the concurrent plots deepen as the novel progresses, including additional murders and anonymous menacing notes. With that in mind, the final act is a bit disappointing. There’s a surprising abundance of lingering questions near the end that Maxi seems content with leaving unresolved, even if readers won’t be.

A smart, somewhat passive protagonist leads a dark, measured tale set in the business world.

Page count: 692pp
Publisher: manuscript
Program: Kirkus Indie
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