The Last Trade
A novel by James Conway
Book review by Jules Brenner
Dutton, released 6/14/12, 416 pp., $26.95
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Perhaps the first item of interest about this stock market thriller is that James Conway isn't the author's real name. Hmmmn... do we detect a certain sensitivity about the fact that he (or, maybe, she) is a hedge fund insider and a global strategy director at a major advertising firm? Look, this is a mystery yarn, so we have a duty to be suspicious. In any case, this is his/her debut novel, following the first commandment for writers, "write what you know."

Conway is smart enough to avoid drowning us in trade jargon, too, though he allows insider terms like "stat-arb quant." What the devil is that? The first part is probably statistical arbitrageur while a quant is the kind of savant that hedge fund firms want on their trading floor, aka, professors, eggheads, and the like. Biy. ehere there's a quant could there be a cutthroat?

The question arises from the fact that this firm, so promisingly named the Rising Fund by an amoral thief named Rick Salvado, has a killing on its mind -- on a global scale. Conway is feeding us out of the trough of greed and gain which, with a little dramatic license and a little capitalizing on how bailed-out firms scooped up everything they could when government stimulus money saved their asses. With a premise guilty of a little bit of exaggeration, Conway writes a galvanizing yarn about a hedge fund operation that brings to mind the amoral, opportunistic war contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, if there's anything that can outdo those vultures, a global collapse brought on by a ruthless and corrupt team of quants led by a financial sage who figures out a way to take advantage of the easy-money subprime mortgage party in 2008 (and still staggering) is a fair candidate.

Cunning folks like him, who are so close to the action and never rich enough, are watching the market from a catbird seat. But, they aren't always that sagacious about trends and pitfalls. Salvado and Co. weren't, but when Tommy Roarke, Salvado's chief rainmaker and closest advisor, hears about Richard Havens, a "freak with numbers," and a man who sees things not seen by others -- who is now predicting a crash in the housing market! -- they're quick to hire him and put his hypothesis to the rigor of intense analysis.

When Salvado's new house nerd Havens emerges from his "data cave," and confirms not only that a crash is likely, but that it's imminent and going to be huge, the music Salvado hears in his ears is more like a symphony of possibilities -- all concerning the size of his... uh, pocketbook. All he needed was a strategy to take maximum advantage of what was about to happen.

In short order, Havens, a man with the social astuteness of a prison guard, is finally enjoying the income level of his wildest dreams and, more vital to him, the praise and respect of the lions in the economic kingdom. Unfortunately, he never anticipated the cesspool of crime and danger it would lead to when brokers in other countries are tasked with making huge short trades for a mysterious client amd then being summarily murdered almost immediately thereafter.

Way beyond the harmless professor of numbers' control, he was now part of an operation that was more like a Mexican cartel and the investments his analysis put into motion were going to bring the global economy down if they're anywhere near accurate. He was now part of a form of depravity the scale of which was completely outside his analytic talent. At least the scientists who participated in the development of the atomic bomb knew the likely consequences of their work.

As a read, this will delight anyone attached to the market and its operations but perhaps even more so for thriller fans who will appreciate the lesson in trading dynamics as a clever author with the right background applies it to crime fiction. Conway's long suit, besides the experience that shows on every page, is his gift for creating characters who are "right" enough for the roles they play that they might be modeled on people he's come across in his day job. It's a strong first effort and he could, in time, be the go-to author for market crimes.

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