Category Archives: Review

Review: Ambition by Stephen Maitland-Lewis

When I saw the ad in the Willamette Writers conference brochure for Stephen Maitland-Lewis’s new novel, Ambition, the lavish endorsements primed me for reading the business fiction answer to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (Among the blurbs were ones by Kitty Kelley and Robert Dugoni – the ad appears below.) So I downloaded the Kindle version and read it over the next twenty-four hours.

Ambition by Stephen Maitland-Lewis

The story begins as a very nervous banker, George Tazoli, is attempting to withdraw $75,000 and wire $7 million from an account in a Los Angles bank, which is just around the corner from the bank where he had worked until “this morning.” We can surmise that George is probably a rogue banker who is getting ready to bolt with stolen money. The scene is just a prologue, though, and the first chapter moves us several months backwards in time.

Peter Donovan, the president of the bank, is married to an independently wealthy social climber. Their only daughter Samantha (Sam), also independently wealthy, is a sexually liberated, self-indulgent, and aggressive climber who, much to the chagrin of her parents, has her sights set on George Tazoli.

Peter is under intense pressure from his board members, most of whom consider him to be incompetent and somewhat of a joke. The board instructs Peter to rid the bank of more than a billion dollars in problem loans. Peter decides to task George with liquidating the loan portfolio and transfers him to New York in order to, shield him from “interference” from other bank officers and board members, and, more personally, cool his daughter’s ardor. The assignment also gives Peter an excuse for periodic trips to New York to participate in high stakes poker games and sexual debauchery in his Manhattan honey pad.

During a short stay at Peter’s apartment, George discovers evidence of Peter’s bad habits and immediately shows the evidence to his cousin Draeger, a shrewd, unscrupulous operator at a small brokerage firm. They formulate a plot to embezzle funds from the sale of the problem loans and use the “evidence” to blackmail Peter in case he discovers their chicanery.

With the assistance of Draeger’s sister-in-law Xhana, with whom George is having an affair, the cousins start selling the problem loans and pocketing the spreads between the bank’s minimum selling price and the price they actually receive from the buyers. The “take” quickly escalates to tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Sam gets pregnant and insists on a quick, private Las Vegas wedding; she sweetens her demand by giving George wedding presents worth several million dollars.

When Peter learns about the wedding, he is furious with George, whom he regards as a low-life fortune hunter. When Peter threatens to fire him, George reveals the evidence of Peter’s extra curricular activities, thus buying himself and Draeger some time to continue their embezzlement. But Peter hires a private detective who discovers George’s affair with Xhana. The discovery unravels their scheme and George and Draeger flee to avoid arrest.

So, does this novel live up to it’s endorsements? Not quite. They promised five-star entertainment. A two-star beach read is more realistic. Here are my top five criticisms.

  1. Absence of a plausible conceit. The plot hinges on the fact that the board, whose members think Peter is inept, allowing Peter to personally take charge of liquidating a billion-dollar problem loan portfolio in the absence of the normal checks and balances that banks must enforce to comply with bank regulations.
  2. A cast of unlikable characters. Every single character in the novel is ethically challenged, devoid of empathy, and obnoxious. They are willing to steal, lie, manipulate, and betray to serve their selfish agendas, making it difficult for readers to root for any of them.
  3. Some of the key turning points depend on coincidences. For example:
    1. George discovers Peter’s gambling and prostitute habits solely because Peter failed to lock the safe in which he stores the video camera and Polaroid photos that serve as evidence; notwithstanding the fact that Peter’s wife occasionally uses the apartment. Without that contrived incident, there would be no novel.
    2. Peter arranges to put out a contract on George’s life. When the assassin is about to kill George, he recognizes George’s Uncle Frank, an ex-NYPD cop with whom he served, and who conveniently drops into George’s life to invite him to a birthday party. The two old police buddies work out a scheme to allow George to escape so he can flee to Brazil. It is patently obvious to the reader that the only reason Uncle Frank is a character in the novel is to foil Peter’s plot to kill George. Talk about coincidences!
  4. Finally, (and this may be just the author’s style) I found the dialog to be plodding and turgid and the exposition less than elegant.

So, why the enormous gulf between the ebullience of the endorsements and the quality of the novel?  It’s obvious.  Maitland-Lewis has lots of celebrity friends, all of whom are willing to lend a hand to promote his career. Good for him!

I wish Maitland-Lewis every success in selling Ambition to a producer. In the hands of a good scriptwriter and directors it might make a passable movie (ala Arbitrage or Paranoia).

Ambition by Stephen Maitland-Lewis

Review: Top Producer by Norb Vonnegut

Top Producer by Norb Vonnegut is a well written, interesting business thriller, and about three quarters of his readers on Amazon agree with me.

Top Producer by Norb VonnegutVonnegut employs the first-person point of view, as well as the financial jargon of a professional, to convincingly put the reader in the shoes of a successful stockbroker in Midtown Manhattan. Grove O’Rourke, Southern-born and Harvard-educated, works for an investment bank, a place where “the elite go to get ideas and leave their money.” He handles approximately two billion dollars, and being a “top producer,” consistently delivers good returns.

Vonnegut’s first-person writing paints a vivid picture of O’Rourke’s pressure cooker of a life. In addition to acquiring and retaining clients, investing their assets, and “holding their hands,” he must cope with constant backbiting, manipulation, and game playing by colleagues and competitors who connive to steal his business.

The conceit of the novel is as follows: Grove’s closest friend, universally liked Charlie Keleman, is a flamboyant, free-spending manager of a boutique bank that invests in “funds of funds.” Charlie organizes a birthday party for his wife Samantha at an aquarium. During the belly dancer’s routine, and with five hundred guests looking on, someone pushes Charlie into the fish tank, where he is eaten by the resident sharks. Shortly after the tragedy, Samantha contacts Grove and informs him that she needs his help to locate Charlie’s money—she was not involved in the business; she has no idea where he parked their personal or business assets; and she has only $600 in her bank account.

So, the reader is now confronted with two questions:

  1. Who threw Charlie into the tank and why?
  2. Where is the money?

Grove insists on lending Samantha $75,000 to help her through the crisis, an action that will ultimately make him a “person of interest” when the detectives start their investigation. And he agrees to help her extricate herself from the financial morass. Vonnegut follows Grove as he attempts to unwind the two mysteries, cope with the detectives assigned to the case, and face both the revealed and unrevealed villains who are determined to keep the mysteries unsolved—all while attempting to preserve his lucrative investment practice and fight off his so-called colleagues who are “smelling blood in the water.”

The novel has two weaknesses, one minor, and one major.

  1. Vonnegut introduces some over-the-top minor characters who come across as almost cartoonish. Also, Grove’s occasional aphorisms spoken to the reader (Woody Allen–like) periodically interrupt the fictive dream.
  2. In light of his education and experience, Grove’s willingness to assume the dual roles of forensic accountant and private detective to solve the twin mysteries, while trying to preserve his businesses and not run afoul of the law, requires a whopping dose of suspension of disbelief.

Nevertheless, the novel’s strengths more than make up for its weaknesses:

    1. In Grove O’Rouke, Vonnegut has created a strong character who is truly a nice guy. His efforts to help Charlie’s wife resolve the mess that she is in, while often amateurish, are laudable. It is easy for the reader to identify with and root for him.
    2. A reader who is motivated to learn something about the nuts and bolts of high finance and security trading will be amply rewarded.

Review: Company Man by Joseph Finder

If you were to look up Company Man by Joseph Finder on, you would not have to scroll far before seeing a review written in all capital letters. “FULL OF IMPLAUSIBILITIES,” this review screams, and although I’ll limit my complaints to lowercase letters–I’d have to agree.

Company Man follows Nick Conover, the CEO of a major corporation, as well as homicide detective Audrey Rhimes. This book is not low on conflict.  Nick Conover has 99 problems, among them: a dead wife, a company-wide conspiracy and a stalker who likes to spray-paint messages on and in Nick’s house.

Now, all of that is well and good. Finder does a thorough job of defining characters. He does a thorough job of developing problems. He is a ping-pong master when it comes to tracing conspiracies back to the source. However, none of that matters because this book’s foundation is made out of dominoes. The majority of those intricately designed problems are present and work because Nick Conover got a security system, equipped with cameras, at a specific time. Here’s the thing: it is simply not possible for the reader to accept that it took Nick’s house being broken into five times and his dog being murdered before he finally decided he needed a security system. Gated community or no, any sane person is getting that security system after the first break-in. Come on, Nick, your kids live there!

Company Man had other problems as well; existing separately, they might have been overlooked as simply bad decisions, but since they all happen in the same book, they stand out–like so many sore thumbs. Finder also has a habit of going into extreme detail for things that are not necessarily important. I specifically remember a bit about the “Workplace of the Future.”  It went on for a while, and I found it interesting, but after it had finished and moved on, I was left wondering what the point of it had been.

A clue to the prevalence of a lot of superfluous information is found in the four page “Acknowledgement” section at the end of the book. While the majority of fiction writers feel an obligation to thank their editor, publicist, graphic designer, publisher and perhaps their parents, Finder acknowledges the contribution of (approximately) 25 businesses/organizations and 80 individuals. The net result of all of these contributions is Finder winds up with an immense amount of information, most of which is not essential to carry the story; and too much of it finds its way into the novel – which cannot help but distract and/or confuse the reader and slow down the story.

All that being said, Company Man was a good thriller on bad foundation. It had twists that I didn’t see coming (although I probably should have) and characters so thought-out that Finder knew the names of their third grade teachers, their entire work resumes and the brand of toothpaste they used. I wouldn’t discourage you from reading it; just know that you’ll spend the whole book thinking, “Why didn’t Nick get that security system after the first break-in???”



Review: The Embezzler by Louis Auchincloss

Louis Auchincloss, who died in 2010, was one of America’s most prolific authors. Over his fifty-year career, he wrote 60 books, including 31 novels, several biographies, short story collections, works of literary criticism, and more. During most of his writing career he was employed full-time as an estate attorney.

The subject matter for his fiction oeuvre was derived from what he called “the comfortable world” — which when he was growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s meant an apartment or brownstone in town, a house in the country, a staff of five or six maids, two or three cars, several club memberships, a private school education for one’s children. His work was frequently compared with Edith Wharton’s, whose characters, settings, and plots originated in what was then called the world of “bluebloods,” or in today’s parlance, the “one-percenters.”

embezzlerIt is therefore somewhat prescient that Auchincloss’s 1966 novel, The Embezzler, addressed an issue that would both dominate the headlines and affect a substantial portion of society 42 years later—namely flagrant malfeasance of highly placed and trusted members of the financial elite.

Auchincloss was inspired by the documented facts of the 1938 Wall Street fraud case involving Richard Whitney that led the United States government to take control of the stock market. Whitney, who had been president of the New York Stock Exchange for many years, was arrested for pledging collateral that he didn’t own for a loan that he was not able to repay. He was such a prominent figure in the financial world that when an aide told then-president Franklin Roosevelt that Whitney was arrested, he was purported to have been astonished and exclaimed, “Not Dick Whitney. Not Dick Whitney.”

The Embezzler uses three conflicting narrative voices and conflicting viewpoints to tell the story of the rise and fall of Wall Street legend Guy Prime, who, like Richard Whitney, was born into wealth, attended the best schools, and achieved financial positions of power and authority, on the assumption that his character was impeccable. The three narrative voices are those of Guy Prime, his best friend, Rex Greer, and his wife, Angelica, who following Guy’s arrest, divorces Guy and marries Rex, with whom she previously had an affair.

The conceit of the novel arises from the fact that after serving his five-year prison sentence, Guy Prime moves to Panama, marries, and spends the rest of his life having lunch, drinking, and reflecting on the how and why of his fall from grace. He decides to write his story so that his daughter—who has completely cut off communication from him and his grandchildren, hear his side of the story. He insists that he never intended to commit a crime, but made some unfortunate decisions, misjudged certain people, and was the victim of circumstances that were entirely beyond his control. Upon his death, the manuscript is sent to his wife who reads it and shares it with Rex. They decide that Guy’s version of the events cannot be the last word and each embarks on writing their own version of the events that led to Guy’s downfall.

Auchincloss’s clever use of an unreliable narrator (ala the Japanese classic film, Rashomon, or Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw) is to reveal Guy, Rex, and Angelica to all be untrustworthy. This technique provides a source for the ambiguity that substantially adds to the novel’s interest and keeps the reader turning pages.

One of the strongest features of The Embezzler is that it gives the reader an excellent insight into the thought processes, risky decisions, self-justifications, and often-magical thinking of a powerful financial executive when his carefully orchestrated schemes start falling apart, losing respectability, and going bankrupt. In short, it’s a story about disgrace.

By reading The Embezzler you will develop new insight into scandals that are frequently reported in the financial press. (One Amazon reviewer noted that as he read the novel he imagined that he was in Bernie Madoff’s head.) I strongly recommend the novel.

Review: The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line, a business thriller by British author John Harman, was originally published in 1991 and recently re-released as an e-book. Of ten Kindle reviewers, seven gave it five stars. This is admittedly a small sample size, but I will add my review to the hat and give it three.

The theme of The Bottom Line is hijacked from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, namely, unrestrained ambition and hubris lead inevitably to failure and ignominy.

The Bottom Line by John HarmanRichard Hoecheck is a hard-driving, psychopathic CEO “who will stop at nothing to achieve his bottom line.” Two of his minions—the beautiful financial executive Madelene Weybourne, and the creative, conflicted, and reckless Tony Oldbidge, who are surreptitiously having an affair—are inadvertent, willing codependents of Hoecheck. They facilitate his schemes to amass assets under the umbrella of his large conglomerate, an investment staple of many middleclass and wealthy families. Hoecheck is achieving high shareholder value through nefarious means (including insider trading, blackmail, and murder) but Madelene and Tony are initially exhilarated by the job’s frenetic wheeling and dealing. As they gradually become aware of the criminal roots of their boss’s empire, they conspire to bring him down.

The novel is well written. Harmon’s development of both the major and minor characters is excellent. The backstories he creates for the characters along with the detail with which he paints their physical characteristics, tics, and idiosyncrasies bring them to life. His dissection of the various characters’ personalities to reveal the extent to which they are motivated by greed is truly masterful.

This otherwise excellent novel has four weaknesses, none of which should discourage a potential reader:

  1. The manner in which some of the major conflicts are resolved, as well as the dénouement, became apparent when I was only about a third of the way into the novel. As a result, the suspense was dissipated and much of my motivation for completing the novel is lost.
  2. One particular characteristic of Harmon’s style creates an interruption of the fictive dream. This is the grinding detail with which he describes the routes the characters take to get from where they are to where they want to be. If you are not familiar with the streets of London or the geography of England, these passages will be both useless and frustrating; I suggest you skip them.
  3. Late in the novel, when Tony is conspiring to rain on Hoecheck’s parade, he realizes that Hoecheck is on to him. Nevertheless, he continues to take reckless chances, acting as if he is bulletproof—which is not the behavior the reader would expect and is simply not plausible.
  4. Finally, I found the novel too long for the scope and complexity story being told. I think it would have packed a greater punch if it were about a third shorter.

An Exceptional Insight Into the Career of a Businessman


In the early 1970s I was struggling to keep alive the high-tech company I had founded in 1964. I also saw for the first time Save the Tiger, a film based on Steve Shagan’s novel of the same name, and immediately knew that I had discovered a soul mate—someone who had challenges and experiences similar to my own. The movie starred Jack Lemmon, who ultimately won an Oscar for his role as Harry Stoner, the struggling CEO of a manufacturer of women’s clothes.

save-the-tigerHaving survived for fifteen years, Harry and his partner Phil, an accountant, are in the final stages of bringing out a new line women’s dresses, and desperately need financing. They don’t have enough collateral to get the bank financing they need, so they are exploring other alternatives, including torching a warehouse that they own for the insurance proceeds. In addition to his financial challenges, preserving this “house of cards” requires him to (1) mediate the conflict between his creative designer, Rico, and his old Russian cutter, Meyer; (2) coordinate the liaison between a large buyer who expects to be “serviced,” and the prostitute he has on retainer; (3) cope with recurring PTSD episodes resulting from combat in World War II; and (4) prepare for the IRS’s audit of books that they both know have been cooked.

For me, what most impressed me about the story is the extent to which Shagan’s portrait of Harry Stoner is the small businessperson archetype, a character determined to keep a company alive at all costs, despite continual harassment. Driven to succeed, this character gets up every day, shoulders the responsibilities of the entire enterprise, and has to choose the “least worst” option from among unattractive alternatives. He or she dreams of the deal or season that will pay off and fund retirement, travel, and an easier life of charitable activities. Yet Harry knows that any hope of retirement is a fantasy.

One of my favorite scenes is the one that resonates with me most strongly. Here, at a meeting with Harry to resolve his conflicts with Rico, Meyer offers to resign:

Harry loosened his tie and unbuttoned his top button, “I don’t want you out.”

The old man moved around the table. “What do you want, Harry? Come on, tell me. I’m an old stone, I don’t talk. Tell me. What is it you want?”

Harry leaned over and picked up a small square of black faille. He thought about the old man’s question, looked up at the neon tubing and said, “More.”

“You mean money?”

“No . . .”


“Another season.”

The old man smiled. “And that’s everything? Another season?

“That’s right. It is. The average life in this business is seven months. We’ve survived for fifteen years—that’s something. Godammit, it’s everything.”

It’s eerie; I can remember making very similar statements on a number of occasions.

What makes Save the Tiger such a good read is:

  1. The characters are well drawn, especially Harry, Phil, Meyer, and Margo (the prostitute Harry has on retainer). Their actions are plausible.
  2. The setting—the Los Angles Garment District, Hollywood and Beverly Hills—is vividly described. You are there!
  3. The plot is very well developed. It grabs hold of you and won’t let you go.
  4. The story will evoke a feeling of recognition in any businessperson who reads it. You can’t help identifying with Harry.

For these reasons, Save the Tiger is an example of outstanding business fiction. I strongly recommend it.