When I was in high school in the late 1950s, I read Alexander Dumas’ trilogy about the three musketeers, and decided to become a novelist. However, life is what happens when you’re making plans, and school, career and family intervened for five decades. I finally sat down to write that novel when I retired in 2011 from my day-job as a finance executive. I had written a lot of non-fiction, including a book on urban transportation planning published by MIT Press. (I had an eclectic career.) However, I discovered that writing a novel is much, much harder than writing non-fiction.
My early training was in engineering, and there was an old joke in engineering school that went something like this:
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Student picks up his research paper from the professor, and the professor asks, “Is this the best you can do?”
Student pauses, thinks a little, and says, “I guess not.”
Professor says, “I know you can do better. Bring it back when you’re done.”
Student hands in the new paper, and goes to pick it up. Professor again asks, “Is this the best you can do?”
Student sighs, and says, “No, I had some new ideas after I handed it back.”
Professor says, “Then try again.”
A week later the student returns, and the professor asks him the usual question. The student looks grim, but says, “Yes, this is the best I can do.”
The professor says, “Okay. Then I’ll read it.”
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A Death In Greenwich By Juri Pill
That professor would have been pleased with this book. It represents five years of work, and four different drafts focused on the same characters and plot, each one better than the previous one. The novel is set in Greenwich, Connecticut, and involves a dramatic collision between a value-investor financial nerd (been there) and a serial killer (haven’t been there – we’re talking fiction, after all). The action occurs during ten days centered on the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September, 2008. That now seems long ago, but hey, I started writing this book in 2011. My main objective now is to find readers, and given the price elasticity of books these days, I have priced it at $0.99, the lowest that Kindle will allow for e-books. My blurb is as follows:
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“Dr. Joshua Dionne stared down at the severed finger and the pool of blood on the white tile floor, and he knew his world would never be the same. His friend was missing, and now probably dead. It would be a week from hell, and before it was over, his whole family would become the target of a vicious serial killer. The trail would lead through hedge fund moguls, contemporary art super-stars, and combat-trained soldiers of fortune, a heady mix of money, greed and murder. Dionne’s forensic accounting skills would unravel a multi-billion Ponzi scheme, but as he peeled back the layers, the hidden core of the richest small city in the world would finally give up its darkest secrets – and Dionne would be facing death in Greenwich.”
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“A Death in Greenwich” is now available at https://www.amazon.com/Death-Greenwich-Juri-Pill-ebook/dp/B01N4VAOAV . To whet your reading appetite further, here are the opening pages. By way of background, I’m also a singer/songwriter, and you can check out my music by googling my alter ego – Smokey Witt. That’s why the novel has a lot of music.
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He was sure someone was in the suite. Courtney had left hours ago, and he distinctly remembered locking the door. He glanced at the alarm clock – four A.M. He breathed in slowly and exhaled quietly. Dead silence. Maybe it was a dream.
He rolled over and closed his eyes, trying to get back to sleep. Then he heard it again. It was coming from the living room – a gentle tapping, rhythmic and barely audible. He got up very quietly and started moving toward the sound. And then he saw it. The window was open, and a gentle wind was rocking the half-drawn blind back and forth, ticking the wall and creating the gentle knocking sound. He knew he had closed that window. He could feel his heart rate increasing as he reached for the light switch, but before he could get to it, he caught a slight movement in his peripheral vision, and turned quickly toward it. He saw two shadowy shapes crouching halfway across the room, and heading toward him.
Shit, he’d stumbled in here too sleepy to reach for a weapon or even his phone. And the odds—two against one—weren’t good.
Years of martial arts training kicked in, and he slowed his breathing and pulse. He needed to get the adrenaline working in his favor. Within moments his hearing and night vision sharpened. He realized that the figure on his left was bigger, heavier; the one on the right slender and fine-boned. Both were dressed in black, wearing ski masks. He had to take out the smaller one first.
With lightning movements, he grabbed a nearby chair and overturned it, striking the larger attacker and temporarily blocking his path. Then he scooped up a glass vase filled with flowers from the coffee table and hurled it at the smaller attacker. But the assailant sidestepped, and the vase crashed against a wall mirror, shattering both. He hoped someone heard it and would call the police.
And then the smaller assailant was on him. He tried to pull the guy toward him, to cut off the possibility of a strike, but the attacker’s arm swept up on the diagonal, and he felt a blade slice across his arm, followed by a hard thrust into his gut. He never saw the knife.
He felt a thunderous blow to the side of his head—the bigger guy–and almost went down. The bathroom was just behind him. If he could get in there, lock them out …
Gasping with pain, he staggered into the bathroom. He pushed the door shut and leaned against it, turning on a light to examine his injuries. But he kept seeing the way that guy handled the knife, keeping the blade concealed, the diagonal slash, followed by the thrust. And that side fist to his head. Both of his assailants were highly trained.
He felt the door behind him pushed open. He couldn’t stop them. His gut was on fire and he could barely move the arm that was cut. He grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his bleeding arm. They came at him. Now he saw the knife blade gleaming. He raised his bloodied arm to block the blow, and drove his other fist toward his attacker’s face. His hand hit the knife. He felt nothing, but he could see his finger was gone. Then the knife slashed the soft flesh of his throat and he fell to his knees. He could feel his strength slowly ebbing. The needle sting in his arm was almost an afterthought, and he knew it was over. He closed his eyes and relaxed as one of them reached over and turned off the light.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Joshua Dionne – JD to his friends — sat tuning his Telecaster guitar, and smiled when he saw Raji saunter into the music room, tail wagging like a metronome. Raji, whose name meant King, was a black Labrador retriever who happened to like western swing music, which was unusual for a dog.
Raji’s master followed him in and sat down behind his drum kit. Fareed Ghanem stood about five nine, and weighed maybe one thirty, but his tempo had never failed in the fifteen years since the Charles River Playboys had first gotten together as a trio at MIT. The third member of the group, Richard Bridger, nodded as Fareed gave a few taps on the bass drum and tested the high hat. Rich was the ying to Fareed’s yang. He was six four and probably two- forty, and the Fender bass looked puny in his massive hands. The band had been his idea when they had all been vying for their doctorates in mathematical economics at grad school, and he was still the front man and vocalist.
Rich folded his hands and stretched them out in front of him, cracking his knuckles. His bass hung precariously over his shoulder. “What say, we kick it off with a little ‘San Antonio Rose’?”
Fareed’s eyes widened as he watched the swaying neck of Rich’s bass. “I think that would be a splendid idea. But please do be careful with that instrument.”
JD nodded in agreement with the selection. The song was a little long in the tooth, but he liked the chord progressions, and it was an okay warm-up number. Fareed kicked it off, and they started in. But about halfway through, Rich stopped singing and put up his hand.
“We need to take it to a lower key, guys. I can’t hit that high note anymore.”
JD tilted his head back and grinned. “So get some tighter shorts.”
Fareed frowned and shook his head. “That is not such a good idea. So much pain for so little gain. Why do we not attempt it in B-flat?”
“That’s easy for you to say.” JD pointed at the drum kit. “All keys are the same for a drummer.”
Fareed glanced over at JD. Then he started tapping out a quiet shuffle rhythm on the snare and high hat, nodding his head to the tempo. His eyes were half-closed.
Raji started growling.
Rich frowned a little, and said, “Look, JD, we need it in B-flat so I can sing the damn song. My voice has changed. I’m not twenty-five years old anymore.”
JD raised his left hand from the guitar neck and flexed it. “Well, my fingers aren’t what they used to be either. Let me think about this for a minute.”
He felt his neck muscles tighten. Rich could never leave things alone. But he took a deep breath, flipped his chart book to “San Antonio Rose,” and made some notes. Then his hands moved quickly up and down the ebony fretboard as he tried out some ideas in the new key. He started to relax. It could work.
“Okay, I’ll give it a shot. Kick it off, Dr. Drummer.”
Fareed counted in the song again, and JD opened with an audacious new lick leading straight into Rich’s vocal. The trio hit the modulation into F, and Rich’s voice was soaring. Rich finished the verse, and then pointed his bass at JD, who took his cue and moved into a risky new solo. First two octaves of ascending sixteenth notes in a pattern they’d never heard before, and then a swooping series of rapid chord changes. He hit the final chord with a big grin and a shower of notes, and Fareed gave a big double kick on the bass drum as Rich moved into the second verse. When they finished the song, everyone was smiling. Raji gave a single bark of approval.
Rich put his hand up for a high five. “I had no idea how you were going to land that thing, JD. Your fingers were flying up and down that fretboard. I couldn’t believe it.”
Fareed gently placed his brushes on the snare, and grinned. “Sometimes it is worthwhile and rewarding to try something you have never tried before. Would you not agree, Joshua?”
JD nodded. “I have no idea how I did that. But I guess that’s why we’ve lasted fifteen years playing the same old songs.”
They moved quickly through the set list for their next gig at the Sundown Saloon on Greenwich Avenue. When they were done, JD and Rich put their instruments on their stands and leaned back. Fareed walked over to the white and chrome ‘50s Frigidaire and pulled out three beers. Bridger lit up a cigar, prompting Raji to move over to the other side of the room.
Fareed said, “Richard, please tell us about your presentation tonight to the hedge fund crowd here in Greenwich. What will you be saying to them? Should we attend?”
“Nothing new, so don’t bother. It’s about the coming crash. All those variable rate mortgages and liar loans are being foreclosed, and those triple-A rated housing bonds are defaulting. Lehman’s has the largest stake in that ball game, and they’re a dead man walking.” Rich took a swig of his beer and looked around for an ashtray.
“Why did they invite you?” JD asked. “They’ve been calling you Dr. Doom for the last two years. This is nothing new. We’ve seen it coming all along. It was obvious.”
Fareed said, “Sometimes the thing that is right in front of you is not so obvious to everyone. Or perhaps they see it but do not want to believe it.”
Rich took a long puff on his cigar, and blew three flawless smoke rings. “John Maynard Carter will be there. I haven’t seen him since that plagiarism incident at Yale when I was his thesis advisor.”
“He’s done well, riding the CDO gravy train and the housing bubble,” JD said. “His fund is managing two billion now. Not bad for a Ph.D. dropout. I saw him on CNBC on Friday, saying all is good, nothing to worry about.”
Rich glanced sharply at JD. “Carter wasn’t a dropout. He was kicked out after I caught him plagiarizing. And I don’t think his ethics have changed. I’ve been looking at the returns on his fund, and they don’t make sense. They’re mathematically impossible.”
Fareed’s eyes opened very wide. “Do you think he is running some sort of fraud?”
Rich closed his eyes and took another long puff. “I wouldn’t put it past him. I’ve asked one of my friends at the Securities Exchange Commission to look into it.”
Fareed turned to JD. “I saw that interview on CNBC. Carter said there’s never been a national housing collapse in the United States. Perhaps he should have learned from your President Harry Truman, who said the only thing new under the sun is the history you have not read. Obviously, Mr. Carter never studied the Great Depression, when house prices fell by half all across America. By the way, I bought two more credit default swaps last week, but they are becoming very difficult to find. Goldman Sachs came back to me and wanted to buy some back.”
“I think the big banks are finally starting to understand what’s happening,” JD said. “No one will sell me any credit default swaps either.”
Rich took another long drag on his cigar, and the room was silent for a minute. The ash on the cigar was getting very long, and Fareed was looking worried about his carpets. Then Rich said, “Lehman is going to collapse, and then there’s going to be a bank run. But it won’t be on Main Street, like in that Jimmy Stewart picture. It’s going to be on Wall Street. And we’re all going to make a fucking fortune.”
Fareed rushed over with an ashtray. Rich let the inch-long ash drop in the ashtray, and said, “I give it a week. All those credit default swaps will pay off.”
JD nodded. He was now running a sizeable investment fund, not quite in the same league as Fareed, but substantial. And Rich was a tenured economics professor at Yale, running his own money. At first, the focus of the three friends had been on picking stocks, but then they had figured out a way to short the housing bubble. It involved credit default swaps on collateralized debt obligations, basically buying insurance policies against the collapse of some housing bonds that they knew had to collapse. JD compared it to buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house when you knew he smoked in bed. When the crash came, the swaps would pay off big-time.
They finished their beers, turned off the amps, and packed up the instruments.
Fareed said, “Richard, would you like to stay for dinner? Vivian is away at university, and I’m sure Heema won’t mind. We can cook American.”
“Thanks, but they’ve put me up at the Zodiac Inn, and my presentation is right there. I’m going to stop at the local dojo and get in a quick sparring practice, and then I’ll get a steak at the hotel. Maybe next time.”
JD said, “I hope this is just a professional meeting. No extracurricular recreation.”
Bridger just smiled and did not respond.
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Buy it, and enjoy it on your next plane ride to Davos.