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Book Review : Scary Novel of Banking Shenanigans

February 05, 1987|DON CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

The Ropespinner Conspiracy by Michael M. Thomas (Warner Books: $18.95)

Are you ready for another economic "Run, Run, the Sky Is Falling!" story? Then climb aboard for novelist Michael M. Thomas's "The Ropespinner Conspiracy"--a cynical and biting denouncement of American banking. Sure enough, novelist Thomas has credentials to spare to talk about global finance and the ability of unscrupulous men to manipulate it for destructive purposes. He's been the partner and executive officer of two major investment-banking firms as well as a director of several business corporations.

But how is he as a novelist? Scary, that's how. Consider, for a moment, what "Ropespinner" in the title means. Remember Lenin's observation, early in the Russian revolution, that "Capitalism will sell us the rope with which we will hang it?" Now move ahead to 1935 when a brilliant young American economist, Waldo Chamberlain, and an equally brilliant young Soviet economist, Grigoriy Menchikov, meet during an international seminar headed by British economist John Maynard Keynes and the sparks between them fly--intellectually, ideologically and, well, if you must know, physically, too.

But what might have begun and ended as a locker room, sophomoric prank by this economic Leopold and Loeb team becomes a full-blown, 52-year conspiracy to draw capitalism, sure enough, into the spinning of its own noose as both young men mature and gain international stature in their respective societies . . . stature that enables them to manipulate their people into positions of banking power in the United States--and never mind that a few people have to be removed or ruined in the process.

Massive Abuses

Now consider all the banking practices that have flowered in the past 20 or 30 years and which novelist Thomas feels have seriously compromised the United States' financial stability--Eurodollars, petro dollars, abortive loans to Third World nations, deregulation of the banking industry that has led to massive abuses in corporate takeover bids, and to precarious overextensions of credit, and on and on.

All a coincidence, or the logical result of a 50-year plot surreptitiously and patiently carried out by two ego-ridden men on different sides of the Iron Curtain?

But how to pull it off? How to generate the "wind" that will tumble the house of cards that they have put together? By staging a defection on the part of the now-aged Waldo and Manning Mallory who, under Waldo's tutelage has become America's most powerful banker. Presto! The two of them will turn up at a press conference in Moscow, where they will receive the Order of Lenin, and the world will learn how totally the American banking industry has been duped. The house collapses.

Few Cuddly Characters

Pretty far-fetched? Agreed. Pretty lacking in cuddly central characters? You said it! We're halfway through the book before novelist Thomas introduces the first two characters that the reader hasn't wanted to throttle on the spot--via a love affair between a rather romanticized Episcopalian rector, the Rev. Francis Mather, and a niece of our arch-villain, Waldo. And it is the niece, Elizabeth, who, in rummaging through Uncle Waldo's private papers, uncovers the nature of the Ropespinner plot and the seamy relationship between her oh-so-proper uncle and Comrade Grigoriy.

How to abort the flight to Moscow that will trigger disaster without getting themselves killed in the process? To whom, in the present Administration in Washington with its sweetheart relationship with bankers, generally, can the Rev. Mather and Elizabeth turn?

This is a taut thriller that will scare the pants off you about the direction, or misdirection, of American banking. Thomas followers might wish for a little more of the lightheartedness and wit that the author displayed in an earlier novel, "Someone Else's Money," where he disemboweled Wall Street with the deftness of a shrimp being deveined. In retrospect it was just a warm-up for this far more grim demolition of American banking.

If you think the conspiracy itself is wild-eyed, though, wait until you get to the slam-bang, stand-aside-James-Bond finale.

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