Sara McIntosh (a pseudonym) has published her first novel, Shell Games, a financial action/thriller. It’s a good first novel, and well worth the time invested for reading. [ordering information]
Shell Games is a fun read for anyone. Accountants, though, will receive an extra dose of enjoyment. The plot is thrilling. In some tense scenes, I found myself cheating a look at the final chapter to see how the story ends.
When considering the sub-genre of financial action/thriller novels that showcase the role of fraud auditor (aka financial sleuth or forensic accountant), there are few options. Well, there has been only one serious option–The Devil’s Banker by Christopher Reich. Shell Games is a pleasant contrast to the heavy international espionage of Reich.
The Devil’s Banker is a complicated story of international terrorist money transfer, with bombs, assassinations and too many characters. It reads much like a Bond film, with a super sleuth accountant as a Daniel Craig type of 007. The male protagonist does all the heavy duty accounting, and a female spy does most of the heavy action. Reich never convinces me, though, that the hero is truly an accountant. Perhaps it’s because Reich has a finance, not an accounting background. This is never more apparent than in Reich’s Numbered Account, a story that would greatly have benefitted from some nuts-and-bolts accounting, had Reich been able to supply it.
In McIntosh’s Shell Games, though, we suffer no such weakness. The heroine–super sleuth and super sexy Marjorie Stevens–is all accountant. She is convincing as a fraud auditor because McIntosh was a fraud auditor. McIntosh’s bio reveals she was a, “fraud auditor and financial executive for two of the largest consumer products companies in the world, [and] uncovered numerous frauds, including one that earned her … [an award for] ‘Finance Person of the Year’.” In addition, she “founded her own finance and accounting consulting business, serving Fortune 100 companies” that could investigate fraud in global financial operations.” Shell Games is convincing because McIntosh truly has been there and done that, and she is a good enough writer to be able to show us her former world. Obviously, there is a lot of Sara McIntosh (SM) in Marjorie Stevens (MS).
McIntosh’s female perspective is a significant influence. Instead of a male dominated action thriller with several shoot ‘em up scenes, the fast-paced action of Shell Games is moved along by characterization and charming characters. Be prepared for women that are effective and efficient in their roles (a woman is up for Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission) and men are not. Needless to say, the women are uber attractive despite having passed their 39th birthdays.
In Shell Games, the evil Docents (12 riches men in the world) conspire to purchase one trillion U.S. dollars of premium, unspoiled natural-wonder-rich land around the world to preserve it from development and access by the masses. Instead of using their own funds, they decide to acquire the money through fraudulent financial security transactions. There is are three frauds. The first two involve Wall Street financial institutions spending hundreds of billions of dollars in buying nearly worthless collections of mortgages. The banks have paid too much for these mortgage collections, however, because actual mortgages have been duplicated many times over, each one now appearing as dozens of mortgages. On top of this,a multiplier is applied to further exaggerate the value of the mortgage collections. With the frauds undetected by Big Four audits, most of the billions flowing from Wall Street were channeled to pay for real estate acquisitions. The third fraud is applied to the U.S. government. In the context of the sub-prime crisis and Wall Street financial institutions ready to crash, a federal bailout was devised as a way of channeling $700 billion of TARP funds to Wall Street to replace the funds that had been swindled. The frauds are administered for the Docents by the CEO of Leman (Lehman) Brothers and the Secretary of the Treasury.
Once called in by the SEC to investigate, Marjorie Stevens gains access to the bad guy books by (1) stealing the Lemon CEO’s brief case, and (2) hacking into the servers of several involved Wall Street financial institutions. With her hands on the data, she needs less than a week to figure out all the frauds. While sequestered away at the famed Sundance resort in Utah (she needs a quiet place to work, and ‘a girl has got to ski, doesn’t she?’), she seduces Bob Bedford. I guess if it is your first novel, there’s no reason not to include a Robert Redford sexual fantasy. Much of the second half of the novel is devoted to a damsel in distress–Stevens evading two inept goons sent by the Lemon CEO.
Discretely, McIntosh preaches on the shortcomings of the accounting-auditing-SEC environment.
- The Big Four Public Accounting firms do not provide “independent audit opinions.” Their clients run the whole process, only including the auditors where and when they see fit to get what they need (an audit opinion to be listed on an exchange, stock price manipulation, fraud cover-ups,etc.). The auditors don’t initiate, they just aid it, with or without their knowledge. A lot of it they simply don’t see because they don’t do the audit work that would be required to see these things. And nobody really wants them to do the audit work anyway. Even if they are paid to do it.
- The existing system of financial regulation doesn’t work. The SEC has to guess when the auditors and their clients have gone too far in financial manipulation and fraud, and yet their hands are tied to even be able to look at detailed records, etc. And they have zero control over the Big Four public accounting firms. The SEC has the responsibility to take this control, but that the existing structure certainly does not achieve this goal. And, our only bet is to take control here in the U.S. We don’t have a chance to control anything at the international, no-one’s accountable level that global finance is gravitating toward.
There are only two minor flaws. The first is length, it is a bit too long. Second, each page should contain a place for tick marks.
Debit and credit – - David Albrecht