March 12 (Bloomberg) -- Tax havens are like plumbing: They flush money around the globe so efficiently that few people notice -- until someone like Chris Morgan Jones writes a thriller about a sinister energy magnate in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Morgan Jones, whose CV includes 11 years at Kroll Inc., brings the banality of offshore crime to life in “The Silent Oligarch,” an understated debut that carries a special resonance in the wake of Putin’s bare-knuckled presidential victory.
The plot hinges on three men -- one bad, one good and one gutless -- whose work revolves around the billions of dollars and other assets that slither in and out of opaque jurisdictions stretching from the Cayman Islands to Vanuatu. Like the spies in a John le Carre novel, they are surprisingly plausible.
The bad guy is Konstantin Malin, a sallow-skinned career bureaucrat ensconced in Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources when not residing at his compound on a seaside cliff with terraced gardens on the Cote d’Azur. A fleshy man with dead eyes, Malin looks “like a Russian wrestler in retirement.”
Malin controls much of the country’s oil-and-gas industry, making him wealthy and terrifying by turns as he buys up assets in neighboring countries -- refineries in Bulgaria, petroleum fields in the Caspian, PVC makers in Turkey.
The good guy is Ben Webster, a former Moscow reporter for the Times who now works in London for a business-intelligence consultancy called Ikertu.
Avenging a Death
A decade earlier, Webster saw a young, idealistic Russian colleague get her throat slashed for asking too many questions about too many powerful people. No wonder his hair has gone gray. When a client hires Webster to expose Malin as a crook, he glimpses a chance to avenge her death.
The gutless wonder is Malin’s front man, Richard Lock. He’s the plumber in this story. A Dutch-born lawyer, he has spent 15 years washing the Russian’s money and investments through a chain of shell companies. Tied to Malin through marriage and vapid greed, Lock is a master of “routine, dishonest transactions.” He tracks the offshore network on a whiteboard in his Moscow office.
“It looked like a technical drawing, unknowably arcane: hubs and spokes and clusters covered the board, changing and proliferating as Malin’s operations multiplied,” Morgan Jones writes. “Lock knew it all. He knew each company, each bank account, each company director; he knew the filing requirements territory by territory; he knew when money had to leave one place and be due in another.”
As Webster begins disentangling this chain, Lock comes under pressure from legal proceedings in New York and Paris, piquing the interest of journalists. Could Lock comment on allegations that an Irish company linked to him is a money-laundering operation? Then a former colleague dies in mysterious circumstances in Budapest.
His “evasive half-life” is catching up with him.
Before long, Lock is on the run, with Webster, Russian goons and the law in pursuit. Not to mention bodyguards and counter-surveillance teams. The chase takes him to the Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman, through rainy streets in London, down Dutch highways at night and into the ice and snow of Berlin.
Morgan Jones handles the large cast of characters and shifting venues with grace. The prose is stripped to bare essentials: Early on, he describes a grim Kazakh factory town where “black smoke leaks from a dozen pairs of chimneys.”
Earning Our Sympathy
His real triumph, though, lies in how he gradually makes us sympathize with Lock. As the book opens, we see the second-rate lawyer for what he is: a complacent bagman who thinks of little beyond his own creature comforts. Sunbathing in Monte Carlo, he feels “his whole body glow amber” and wonders if he should have another drink.
Bit by bit, though, we learn how his weakness and lack of ambition have turned him into a stooge with a perpetual backache. “Liberty would have been wasted on him,” he reflects in self-loathing. As the chase intensifies, the most compelling question becomes whether -- and how -- he can win back some measure of freedom and dignity.
“The Silent Oligarch” is from Penguin Press in the U.S. and is available from Mantle in the U.K. under the title “An Agent of Deceit” (312 pages, $25.95, 16.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(James Pressley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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