The tumultuous life of Wall Street has always fascinated American novelists, often (though not always) emerging from their pens in the form of potboilers, or pulp fiction—thrillers, murder mysteries, or hardboiled noir. And despite the fact that this literary subgenre has been alive and well for more than a century, the depiction of the hero (or antihero) has changed little in that time. In the popular imagination, the analyst or investment banker is rarely harried or cowed, drab or meek. Whether the protagonists of these novels are idealistic crusaders for free markets and fair play, or the scheming, sneering villains of insider deals and underhanded intrigue, they almost always embody American finance as a figure of daring—glamorous, breakneck, and dangerous!
1853. Herman Melville anonymously publishes Bartelby, the Scrivener, a literary, enigmatic commentary on the increasing power of the securities sector. Melville’s character, Bartelby, is a menial copyist of documents in the office of a Wall Street lawyer. Originally diligent and almost robotic, Bartelby ends by refusing to perform his rote tasks. Some critics identify his quiet defiance as an act of heroic opposition to the finance sector’s growing power in American life. Mysterious, diffident Bartelby does not set the standard for the protagonists of the finance fiction that is to follow Melville’s novella. But as one of the first works to suggest a grim underside to the investment industry, Bartelby will cast a significant shadow.
1930s–1950s. Wall Street executive Robert George Dean begins writing mysteries featuring stockbrokers and bankers as the main characters. Dean subscribes wholeheartedly to the conventions of rough-and-tumble detective noir. Violent, swaggering, swiftly moving prose characterizes his work; a June 27, 1938, review in Time deals kindly with one of his novels: “Unless a reader is tired of the tough, hard-drinking detectives, a good buy or borrow.”
1961. Economist Mary Jane Latsis and attorney Martha Hennisart begin collaborating under the pen name Emma Lathen. They write a series of 24 mysteries centered around John Putnam Thatcher, a banker with a penchant for shady schemes. Their witty, pointed prose garners comparisons to Jane Austen, but their fictional world is wholly centered on Wall Street. In an October 31, 1997, obituary of Latsis, the New York Times celebrates the award-winning series: “Although their books … have been praised for their wit and insights, what set them apart was the authentic, often intricate business deals that produced both the murders and the clues their banker hero used to solve them.”
1980. The financial thriller Green Monday tops bestseller lists. Michael M. Thomas’s ambitious (not to say bombastic) plot involves a worldwide conspiracy to control the global financial system. There’s the usual razzle-dazzle of peril and romance, but Thomas’s view of the marketplace is also dark and deeply cynical—it’s a muckpit of deception, greed, and unscrupulous aggression.
1987. Tom Wolfe’s critically acclaimed The Bonfire of the Vanities chronicles the excesses of the financial circles. The main character is an egotistical bond trader who pays the price for his reckless extravagance when he and his mistress kill a youth in a hit-and-run. For all the glitz, the novel is censorious and deeply moralistic—a no-holds-barred condemnation of the vacuity of Wall Street’s denizens.
1995. Investment banker Stephen Frey publishes The Takeover, in which a secret cadre of powerful Harvard Business School alumni hire Andrew Falcon, a young M&A specialist, to lead the takeover of a bank, as part of the group’s elaborate plot to oust a US president. Frey has followed that up with more than 15 novels in which the complexities of high finance provide the fodder for intricate plot puzzles. He has become increasingly accessible to the noninvestor pulp junkie over the years, recalling ruefully in a January 10, 2003, interview with Bookreporter.com the four-page description of a discounted cash flow that served as a speed bump in the plot of The Takeover.
2007. Viken Berberian’s Das Kapital: A Novel of Love and Money Markets, a multileveled, introspective thriller, emblematizes the existential soul of the investment industry in the new millennium. Its protagonist, Wayne, is an unscrupulous, legendary short seller. With the aid of “The Corsican,” a terrorist and passionate ideologue, Wayne toys casually with international markets. Yet Wayne himself is the plaything and prisoner of the markets, “chained to his Bloomberg,” separated from the world by endless architectures of glass and steel. Berberian’s plot includes a sexy romance, but his real zest is for viciously satirizing the demigods of Wall Street with self-conscious language that is by turns lyrical and lacerating.
Phyllis Feinberg is a journalist working in New York City.