Forget Your Troubles, Pick Up This Beach Read

With the Boston Marathon bombings in mind, Alan Glynn’s new novel Graveland (Picador) may seem eerily prescient. His tale turns on violent acts committed by two brothers—the younger one, a college student in thrall to the older one who belongs to a radical anti-American protest group. Being called a “paranoid thriller” for the Occupy generation, the novel taps into what seems to be a hot new murder mystery genre—the killing of Wall Street one percenters—baddy investment bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity CEOs.

What distinguishes Glynn’s book is the economy of style, apparent in dialogue and interior ruminations, and inventive plotting that effortlessly moves from one character to another from a wholly different world. Glynn knows how to braid seemingly independent strands together. Even chapter epigraphs belatedly take on significance—excerpts from a manuscript called “House of Vaughan” which is about the founding and development of a billion-dollar empire. Until close to the end the reader does not know how James Vaughan, the aged but still controlling patriarch of the empire (who is on his sixth wife), is connected to the killings in the opening section or to the 30-something investigative journalist Ellen Dorsey who happens to have been nearby with an iPhone camera when the two boys shoot their first victim.

It’s not improbable that Graveland may go the way of Glynn’s previous award-winning novel Bloodland, which was made into a movie starring Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper. The new one’s also got a complex, timely theme, enough widely different city scenes along with upstate and Long Island settings to tantalize imaginative camera folks and a wealth of colorful, diverse characters. And, for sure, it’s got that eye-catching opening: “Jeff Gale leaves his building at 8:15 a.m. It’s a Saturday morning, and 74th Street is quiet. A taxi glides by. Across the street an old lady stands with her poodle waiting for it to take a dump.”

The ordinary prose and the expanded paragraph that slyly hints at class critique set up the blunt action that follows: Gale, rich and work obsessed, is out on a routine run in Central Park when two youngsters suddenly trot up in the wrong direction. A gun appears. Pop. Gale is dead.

Cut to feature writer Ellen Dorsey who does pieces for Parallax magazine, run by a fearless guy “who’s just a couple of sandwiches short of wearing a bow tie.” Dorsey has a well-deserved reputation as a smart, honest, thorough but “polemical, potty-mouthed, uncooperative bitch.” She cares more about her work than men, but she has a good, if hardly sentimental, heart. She’s just published a story on the “astrotweeting” of a former governor, part of a series she’s doing on the “degraded nature of modern presidential candidates”(“astrotweeting” is phony-ing up online followers and dummy accounts).

She should be attending to PR for the acclaimed piece, but a domestic murder trial is capturing the nation’s attention on TV, and, besides, there’s something about the Gale killing that gets to her, and her iPhone has captured something the media missed (hello, Blowup). Doggedly expert, she starts doing research. She’s intuitive, a shrewd observer. She’s also coolly analytical: at a bar she sees a skinny guy in a business suit perched on a stool, at the other end of the bar a construction worker spilling off his, which prompts her to muse: Where’s Norman Rockwell when you need him?”

Switch to Frank Bishop, an ordinary 40-something guy, a former architect who was downsized in the 2008 financial crisis and who works at menial chores to make ends meet, which they don’t. Divorced, depressed, he worries about his daughter Lizzie who attends college upstate. Little does he know, nor Ellen at the time, that Lizzie is the girlfriend of the younger assailant. But how is Frank linked to Ellen and to James Vaughan, and how is anyone linked to Craig Howley, Vaughan’s second-in-command, whom Vaughan has asked to take over the helm at the Oberon Capital Group, much to Howley’s egocentric delight. And what’s with the
(apparently) unrelated Connie Carillo murder trial?

The substance of Graveland may at times be more than a reader can (or will want to) absorb, but one of the rewards of well-written financial mysteries is the lore they impart. How many books may prompt looking up The Glass-Steagall [Banking] Act of 1933?

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