Tag Archives: business fiction

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: Love & Money

Love and MoneySince starting The Business Fiction Blog, I have made it a point to visit Powell’s City of Books on Burnside in Portland at least once a month, in order to search for Business Fiction Thrillers. Powell’s stacks their Thrillers in aisles 320 and 321, which consists of 48 four-foot shelves. Several very prolific authors dominate.

Robert Ludlum has four shelves, Tom Clancy – two and a half, John LeCarre and Ken Follett each have two. Michael Crichton has a few scattered in his shelf, (Disclosure, Mainframe); Joseph Finder (Paranoia, Company Man) and Steven W. Frey (Takeover, Day Trader) each have half a shelf. Many of the Thrillers are in the sub-genres of spies, military, politics and so on. Business Fiction Thrillers are in short supply.

It was on one of these monthly excursions that I discovered Love & Money. After I was halfway into it, I concluded that the novel was either improperly categorized by Powell’s reviewers, or perhaps it was dumped into the section by a customer who simply forgot  where it was originally located.

Michael M. Thomas’ Love & Money is very much about show business, the  marriage business and the legal business. As explained on the back cover, the media empire at risk in this novel–worth a billion dollars and thousands of jobs–all rests on the back of a TV star, Constance Grange.

Essentially what’s happening in Love & Money is that Grange, like many stars, promotes a large range of products. She is “America’s Mom.” Her character is very wholesome and relatable–everyone loves her. Connie’s business contract is somewhat dependent on her marriage contract. Her value as a brand is tied to her role as a wife and mother. The  contract includes a clause promising that she “will not engage in acts of moral turpitude or commit any act or thing that will tend to degrade her reputation.”  So, of course, the first thing she does in the novel is have an affair.

Connie’s husband,  the cuckold Clifford, was once a up-and-coming director, but has now found himself on “the permanent Hollywood shit list,” after failing to gracefully handle criticisms of his last film – which was an expensive flop.

Love & Money is split into two parts. In part one, everyone engages in risky and behavior and questionable decision making that jeopardizes their respective financial situations, i.e. having an affair, confiding in your employer about your affair and playing private detective to capture video evidence of said affair. You get the idea.

In part two, Clifford’s lawyer, Jekyll, manages to manipulate Clifford into agreeing toe be the “Doe” in a lawsuit. Jekyll wants to bring to challenge a change in the divorce laws in their home state, which (very theoretically) could enable Clifford  to extract a huge settlement from Constance or her employer.

In order to buy into the plot, the reader needs to believe that a) Jekyll, a highly successful divorce lawyer, would forgo hundreds of hours of lucrative billing for the “privilege” of potentially arguing a case before the Supreme Court, b) that Clifford would allow himself to be Doe in a high profile case, notwithstanding he is paranoid over the possibility that he (and Constance) might  be “outed” by a reporter, and  c) that Clifford, who harbors very strong impulses of revenge against Connie, and is desperately seeking financing to get back into the movie game, would ignore the potential of a proposed $100 million-plus settlement from Constance’s employer.

If you are able to continue to suspend your disbelief, not withstanding the plausibility issues identified above, and plough through to the end, you may achieve some level of satisfaction, which will be largely due to the author’s wit, writing ability and wide range of knowledge. I could not detect much of the suspense that one expects in a “thriller” and I found all the characters lacking in passion. They simply do not appear to care that much about what is happening around them.

In summary, Love & Money is a well-written, erudite, “drawing room comedy” that is much more reflective of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest than a current Business Thriller.

Review: Constructed

Constructed is a tongue-in-cheek romantic thriller about Sophie Berg, a Danish girlfriend of a South African gangster who is returning to Copenhagen to shake off her criminal ties and improve her social status. Stensure, a Danish social media company, publishes the social status metric she relies on. The conceit of the novel is that the social status of individuals, and of businesses, can be quantified, profitably marketed and will ultimately drive the behavior of subscribers.

Upon her arrival in Copenhagen, Sophie picks up a young man in a café who turns out to be the son of Stensure’s CEO, Steen Sand. They develop a romantic relationship. Shortly after Sophie’s gangster boyfriend arrives in Copenhagen, one of his thugs murders Steen’s son. Thereafter the trials and tribulations of Stensure, Steen and Sophie become entangled.

The senior management of Stensure consists of Steen and three other executives. They are the competent, hardworking and loyal executives one would expect to find in an emerging company. Mosfeldt’s keen insights into the challenges posed by a technology-based emerging business are demonstrated beautifully through the realistic handling of Stensure’s own critical issues: maintaining growth, coping with negative cash flow, dealing with recalcitrant bankers and reducing the workforce to conserve cash.

Meanwhile, Sophie’s character is well-drawn. Her motivations, fears, weaknesses, social and seductive capabilities are vividly illustrated. She is a sociopath who possesses excellent skills in deception and betrayal. Nonetheless, she briefly exhibits passion, guilt and remorse when she reveals to Steen her role in the death of his son and is willing to place herself at risk in order to wreak vengeance on her gangster lover. It is left up to the reader to discern whether Sophie is displaying genuine passion or simply playing a role in order to inveigle her way into Steen’s good graces in order to position herself for a job.

My only minor complaint is that Mosfeldt occasionally relies on Dicksonian coincidences to drive the plot. For example, when Sophie arrives in Copenhagen she needs legal help to set up a safe house for her gangster lover. The young man she selects at random and picks up turns out to be a lawyer having exactly the skills she needs to accomplish her objectives and he is happy to help her. Although I found the coincidence jarring, the pull of the story quickly overcame my critical propensities, and I immersed myself in the drama of the characters.

Final thoughts:  The plot is clever, and the style in which the story is told reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest–I enjoyed it thoroughly.


Is it Plausible?

To write a business novel, one first needs to learn how to write fiction.  Fiction, the description of imaginary events, is conveyed by the use of dramatic writing. Dramatic writing tells a story in a particular way:

  1. Conflicts: a character faces one or more problems that must resolved.
  2. The events that occur don’t “just happen.” They happen for reasons that are created by the characters, the circumstances and the environment.
  3. The events must occur logically; e.g. one event follows organically from preceding events. That is, “something happens in a story because of the things that happened before, and only as a logical outgrown of those events” (Buentello, 2010).

The third requirement is essential because that is the only way a writer can insure that the reader continues to “willingly suspend his or her disbelief.” Namely, to immerse himself in a “fictive dream.”

The reader knows intellectually that what he is reading is the product of the author’s imagination; nevertheless, he is motivated to immerse himself in a compelling story and continue to read.

The author wants three things from the reader:

  1. To pick up the book and start to read.
  2. To continue to turn pages.
  3. To keep “dreaming.”

The author’s most important objective is to avoid writing anything in the novel that will interrupt the reader’s dream and cause him to stop suspending his disbelief. If the reader awakes from the dream he may:

  1. Put the book down and read no further.
  2. Write a one star review and post it on Amazon or Goodreads.
  3. Resolve never to read another novel by the author.

So, what kind of writing might cause a reader to awaken from the fictive dream?

Hear are a few:

  1. A character that is not suffering from extreme stress, (which could cloud his/her thinking), acts in a manner that does not reflect the character’s experience, physiology, and psychology that has been painted by the author. The character’s actions are simply not plausible!
  2. An event does not follow logically from a prior event.
  3. The author employs a Dickensonian coincidence to resolve a conflict.
  4. The author employs a deus ex machina device—a god-like character that suddenly appears to resolve a conflict.
  5. The author resolves a conflict in a manner that doesn’t make sense—it is not plausible.


Here is an example from The Boss by Stanley Pottinger, published by St. Martin’s Press:

In an otherwise well-written novel about the oil industry, the author stumbles at a critical juncture in the story. The Gatsbyesque antagonist, Spin Patterson, with the assistance of the chief scientist, (Joe) is involved in a fraud to pump up the company’s stock so that he can sell at the crest. They are alone an oil rig in the gulf, working to further their fraud, when a hurricane strikes. The wind and the flying debris are battering them, when Joe is blown overboard. But he manages to grab on to a safety cable. Spin starts to pull him back onto the platform, when he suddenly remembers a conversation he had with Joe and has an epiphany: Joe may no longer be willing to go along with the fraud—and will probably go to the cops. So, he uses a wrench to unscrew the safety cable from the platform and lets Joe tumble into the raging sea.

In the next scene, Spin’s mistress, Tacoma Reed, a beautiful well-educated lawyer who is the Chief Counsel for the company, visits Spin in the hospital. He whispers to her that she needs to check the video from the cameras on the rig that transmit to tape cassettes located in his office. He is concerned that the cameras have recorded Joe’s murder. She goes to the office, looks at the tape, observes Spin with a wrench working on the safety cable, removes the tape, goes back to the hospital, and destroys the tape as the antagonist looks on.

So, is it plausible for Tacoma, a smart, well-educated lawyer, in the employ of a public company, to destroy of evidence of a serious crime and place herself in jeopardy–all to please her lover, Spin Patterson, who may in fact be a murderer? She could be disbarred. She could be arrested, tried and convicted of obstruction of justice. She could go to prison for a long time. How could she possibly decide that her lover, a possible murderer, is worth risking her future?

This scene occurs about halfway through a 300+ page novel. After I read it, I closed the book and was about to throw it across the room when I remembered that it was a library book.

The author did not merely awaken me from the dream—he shattered it.


Buentello, L. (2010). A concise guide to writing fiction. Retrieved from http://www.lawrencebuentello.com/