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Prowling After Profits : Three new thrillers illustrate the dangers of dramatizing the lives of people who spend their lives staring at he Quotron screen : BOMBARDIERS: A Novel of Business, By Po Bronson (Random House: $22; 336 pp.) : NEST OF VIPERS, By Linda Davies (Doubleday: $23; 272 pp.) : FREE TO TRADE, By Michael Ridpath (HarperCollins: $23; 352 pp.)

March 12, 1995|David Ignatius | David Ignatius is financial editor of the Washington Post. His third spy novel, "The Bank of Fear," was published by William Morrow last summer. His new novel, "The Hatchet Man" (Morrow), is not a financial thriller

Just when you begin to think that the new financial thrillers flooding bookstores this season are based on absurd premises--kids in their 20s betting hundreds of millions of dollars in screwball financial trades--along comes someone like Nicholas Leeson to remind you that truth really is stranger than fiction.

What novelist, after all, would dare create a character as outrageous as Leeson, the 28-year-old trader who lost more than $1.5 billion last month betting on Japanese stock futures and thus destroying Britain's oldest merchant bank? A few weeks earlier, this amazing young fellow was fined for taking his pants down and mooning guests in a nightclub--in Singapore, of all places, the home of the rattan cane. And the day before he skipped town, leaving Queen Elizabeth II's own bank in a shambles, Leeson called a chum at Barings in Tokyo to inquire casually, "How's life?"

Against such facts mere fiction pales. But you have to credit the authors of these three new financial thrillers for being in touch with the Zeitgeist . So similar are their themes and approaches that you can't help but suspect that we are witnessing the creation of a suspense genre for the post-Cold War world. Just as spying was the defining activity of the old order, so the machinations of high finance may be emblematic of the new.

These days, the trading rooms at Merrill Lynch and Salomon Brothers are more powerful than the KGB ever was: They can slash the value of the Mexican peso by 40% in a few weeks and sink a comfortable American community like Orange County in a sea of debt. The fictional KGB spymaster Karla could never have achieved such results.

If the financial thriller has a problem, it's that money is--let's face it--sort of boring. Can readers really be persuaded to care about heroes and heroines who spend most of their days staring at Quotron screens?

These three books offer a useful test. One features a handsome British bond trader who battles a dastardly investment banker. Another involves a beautiful British currency trader who battles a corrupt finance minister in league with the Mafia. The third, a satire, turns the new genre upside down by describing an investment bank gone so bonkers that it attempts the leveraged buyout of an entire Caribbean nation.

The three books--all first novels by talented young writers--are being heavily touted by their publishers, with the whopping first printings and six-figure publicity campaigns that suggest the front office is thinking bestseller. But all three novels are flawed, in ways that show the limitations of the financial thriller as a new genre for the masses.

The premier page-turner of the group is Linda Davies' "Nest of Vipers." Her book tells the story of Sarah Jensen, a smart and beautiful, Oxbridge-educated merchant banker. The author herself is--surprise!--a smart and beautiful Oxbridge-educated former merchant banker.

Jensen, "one of the top foreign-exchange traders in the City of London," likes to leave work early and aerobicize at her health club after a hard day shorting peso futures. She is innocently involved in making obscene wads of money when a slick British intelligence officer and a smarmy governor of the Bank of England lure her into their plot.

Their scheme is vintage financial thriller. The British authorities want to catch a Mafia don who is receiving leaked information about future currency alignments from meetings of the G-7 industrialized nations. Who'd have thought that anything so exciting could happen at a G-7 meeting?

But never mind. The English spies need a mole in the currency trading department of a big merchant bank, who can catch the malefactors red-handed on the execute button of the Quotron machine. And who better than the smart and beautiful Sarah Jensen? Throughout the book, however, we are warned that this is not a gal to trifle with: "If they ever betrayed her, she would, like Samson, pull the pillars down around them all."

They do, and she does.

Davies writes well enough, and her heroine, in addition to being a total babe ("one of the most gorgeous creatures I've ever set eyes on" a character exclaims), is a generally vivid, plausible character. But Davies has an unfortunate tendency to lapse into the Time magazine school of thriller writing, in which she enumerates every item Sarah eats for breakfast, or describes each of the seven newspapers Sarah reads one morning--as if this hemorrhage of detail will lend authority to her tale.

And there are a few sentences such as the following, to confound even the most devoted reader of the financial thriller: "When Barrington asked Marcus Aylyard, the head of the Markets Supervision Department of the Old Lady, to look at the monthly profit-and-loss statement of the ICB's FX Prop Department for the past year, it became evident that there was substance to the young auditor's suspicions."

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