Shelf Life

Dark tales from the Street

Amy Scott Aug 1, 2007
Shelf Life

Dark tales from the Street

Amy Scott Aug 1, 2007


Kai Ryssdal: Fans of crime fiction are a special breed. Once they’re hooked, they’re hooked — and publishers know it. Akashic Books even has a noir series. There’s Brooklyn Noir, San Francisco Noir, even — if you can believe it — Twin Cities Noir.

So this next step had to happen sometime. The series heads to Wall Street this summer. Marketplace’s Amy Scott reports now on the dark underbelly of the trading game.

Amy Scott: The afternoon air wrapped around me like a hot, wet blanket when I caught the 4 train down to Wall Street. I found Peter Spiegelman waiting for me in one of those cute little outdoor cafes on Stone. Too cute, if you ask me.

OK, seriously. Spiegelman is the editor of the short story collection “Wall Street Noir.” He spent 20 years on Wall Street designing trading software for the likes of J.P. Morgan. He says the idea for the book took root the first time he set foot on a trading floor.

Peter Spiegelman: You know, two investment bankers rigging a spreadsheet isn’t quite the same as two grifters taking down a dog track. But you know, spending a little time on a trading floor, you see big egos, and a lot of sweaty paranoia, and a lot of money at stake, and a lot of extreme behavior, and you realize it’s very much the stuff and substance of noir.

Excerpt from Wall Street Noir: A 14-year career on Wall Street wears away at your soul, as assuredly as a stream against limestone. It pushes you to a place where you don’t fully recognize who you are, or how you got here. Wall Street eats its young, and today the beast has a particular appetite for a certain 36-year-old maverick with 78 people reporting to him. That would be me.

As I read, I began to see what Spiegelman was talking about. Noir fiction celebrates the dark side of human nature. Protagonists are imperfect, heroes are scarce. Is that the Wall Street you know?

Spiegelman: Virtue is not reliably rewarded or not rewarded at all, and if you happen to stumble upon the truth, it very often makes things worse. You’ve got characters who are in the grips of their own worst impulses, who are acting against their own best interests, who often know that they’re doing those things, and yet are compelled to do it anyway.

Take the day trader who finds himself stuffed in the trunk of a client’s car after the market goes south:

Excerpt: I guess I was naA¯ve, but when I met him, he just seemed like a nice, hardworking Mexican man who was trying to make a better life for himself, just like everybody else who comes to this country. Later, I learned that he’d earned his money selling drugs. What can I tell you? I’m a moron.

Then there’s the journalist who gets caught up in an insider trading scheme, hoping to impress an old college buddy — the subtly-named Trip Pennypacker:

Excerpt: His sculpted hair was the color of champagne, and that amazing grin was, as ever, a treasury of enticing enamel.

If the writing can be a bit over the top, some of the stories ring a little too true. Like Spiegelman’s own tale of a derivatives trader who gets caught inflating profits at his investment bank. He flees to a small town in South Dakota. And without giving too much away, let’s just say that even rural bartenders care about what happens on Wall Street.

Which brings us to another theme in the book. Wall Street no longer exists solely in Lower Manhattan, or even New York City. These stories cover the map — from Greenwich, Conn. to Honduras, Israel and Thailand. Wherever money and ego are on the line, bad things can happen.

But Peter Spiegelman says it would be too easy to blame greed.

Spiegelman: I think money in this case is sort of the most obvious symptom of something else. You know, it’s not so much that they’re interested in defrauding the firms of big, big money. But they are just terrified to somehow be revealed as failures or incompetent, or, you know, somehow not up to snuff.

Spiegelman’s not the only author with first-hand experience of how Wall Street can wear a man down. My favorite is the one by Henry Blodget. The former star analyst at Merrill Lynch was charged with securities fraud.

A number of e-mails made the case. He eventually settled with the SEC. Appropriately, his story, “Bonus Season,” features the dangers of e-mail prominently. Blodget writes with the empathy of one who’s seen Wall Street’s darker side and lived to tell about it.

In New York, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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