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Sat August 6, 2011
Author Interviews

Wall Street Meets Classic Caper In 'Thick As Thieves'

Originally published on Sun August 7, 2011 7:23 am

Peter Spiegelman loves a good caper. He did, after all, work on Wall Street for 20 years before becoming a writer.

Spiegelman, who has written three thrillers since leaving Wall Street nine years ago, is being acclaimed for bringing some of the hands-on expertise and literary grace that John LeCarre brought to espionage novels to stories of capers, heists and double crosses.

As Spiegelman tells NPR's Scott Simon, inspiration for his new novel, Thick as Thieves, came from some of the classic caper films in which people under pressure race to make a lot of money and always wonder whom they can really trust.

"What I was trying to capture here is the vibe of the exotic; the paranoid; of that tension that is constantly ratcheting up; of people who are wrestling in their own ways with that central question of whether or not there is honor among thieves," Spiegelman says.

The target of Spiegelman's caper is Curtis Prager, a former hedge fund manager who is both rich and corrupt. After his fund goes south under allegations of fraud and the general market collapse, he embraces his inner pirate and creates what amounts to a financial superstore for black money — from money-laundering to shell corporation services.

Wall Street Stereotypes And 'Naive' Notions

In recent years, police procedural shows and movies have often portrayed those who work on Wall Street or the financial services industry as the bad guys. Spiegelman says that the "ripped from the headlines" impulse makes them a pretty easy target. But he says, in his experience, that stereotype doesn't always apply.

"You can look to the bell-shape curve, normal distribution," Spiegelman says. "At one end there are people who you could trust in a room with a pile of uncounted money and never think twice that any of it would go missing; and at the other end of the spectrum, there are people who — no matter what the safeguards — will always try and game the system. And in the middle is the vast bulk of people who are ... under most circumstances pretty honest."

Spiegelman says that what makes Wall Street interesting is that it's an industry that has been filtered to create a population of people who are very good at coming out on top of zero sum games. That's what trading is; someone wins, someone loses. He says investment banks go out of their way to find people who are very good at playing those games.

"So the notion that those people aren't going to try and game the compensation system is, at best, a kind of naive notion," he says.

An Accidental Education In Crime-Fiction Writing

Spiegelman studied poetry at Vassar College during his undergraduate years. He was on his way to pursuing an M.F.A. when, at the eleventh hour, he says he "sobered up."

"[I] realized I had to pay the rent. I needed to make some money," he says.

Along with his English studies, Spiegelman took a lot of math, science and physics. That quantitative education allowed him to get a job in Washington, D.C., with a small consulting firm that had government contracts and did statistical analysis on large government databases. That began his path to Wall Street, but Spiegelman says he never lost his love of literature.

"I have always been an avid reader and a writer, and really throughout my time on Wall Street and in software, I had written — I had been writing poetry — and had always been, from a very young age, a fan of crime fiction. And I had always thought that I want to try my hand at this," he says.

Spiegelman says that while he has nothing against M.F.A. programs, he "thanks his lucky stars" he didn't begin one back then.

"I was just so young and so inexperienced," he says. "And while I might have had some talent and even some craft, I really have no idea what I would have had to say."

Besides, Spiegelman says, the years he spent on Wall Street offered their own kind of writing education.

"I think 20 years of some life experience and 20 years of hanging out on trading floors was actually pretty good education for somebody who's interested in watching people and interested in how they behave under pressure," he says, "and interested in writing crime fiction."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Peter Spiegelman loves a good caper. Well, he did work on Wall Street for 20 years before becoming a writer. But he says the inspiration for his new novel, "Thick as Thieves," are some of the classic caper films in which people under pressure race to make a lot of money, and always wonder whom they can really trust.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIES, "THE ANDERSON TAPES," "OCEANS 11," "TOPKAPI," AND "THE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I need you to bridge some burglar alarms, open doors, cut some telephone circuits. I got a job laid out.

MAN: I just want to knock over a casino.

MAN: Three casinos?

MAN: You got to be nuts.

MAN: Exactly.

MAN: A hundred fifty million.

MAN: Smash-and-grab job, huh?

MAN: Slightly more complicated that that.

MAN: Topkapi is an impregnable fortress. Those emeralds are watching day and night.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So over here in this room, you can take a hundred million off the wall and waltz right out the front door. Oh, that's good.

SIMON: Signature lines from "The Anderson Tapes," "Oceans 11," "Topkapi," and "The Thomas Crown Affair."

Peter Spiegelman has written three thrillers since leaving Wall Street nine years ago. He's being acclaimed for bringing some of the hands-on expertise and literary grace that John LeCarre brought to espionage novels, to stories of capers, heists and double-crosses. Peter Spiegleman joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

PETER SPIEGLEMAN: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Is there anything we'd see in a caper film that winds up in your book?

SPIEGLEMAN: Actually, I love the soundbites that you selected. They're from some of my favorite films and I think the vibe, you know, more than anything else, I think, what I was trying to capture here is the vibe of the exotic, the paranoid, of that tension that is constantly ratcheting up; of people who are, you know, wrestling in their own ways with that central question of whether or not there is honor among thieves.

SIMON: The target at the center of your story is Curtis Prager, and he, he's rich and corrupt. How does he make his money?

SPIEGLEMAN: He had been a sort of storied hedge fund manager. His hedge fund went south under allegations of fraud and the general market collapse. But rather than being chastened by any that, he sort of embraced his inner pirate and got into a business that is ostensibly is about buying small bank and trust companies, consolidating their operations, consolidating their back offices that he runs from the Cayman Islands. What he's actually involved in is providing a kind of financial superstore for black money - so he does everything from money-laundering to investments to shell corporations.

SIMON: I've got to ask you while we have the opportunity here. It seems to me that in recent years, not just since 2008, people who work on Wall Street in the financial services industry are often the bad guys in police procedurals.

SPIEGLEMAN: Sure. Yeah. You know, I mean I think this sort of ripped from the headlines; impulse makes them a pretty easy target.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPIEGLEMAN: And, of course, you know, sadly there are many examples of, you know, of wrongdoing.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, based on your experience, is that a stereotype?

SPIEGLEMAN: Wow. I think, you know, I think about the famous Willie Sutton line of, you know, that's where the money is, right?

SIMON: Willie Sutton said - he was asked why do you rob banks and he said that's where the money is.

SPIEGLEMAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPIEGLEMAN: I think like so many other phenomena, you know, you can look to the bell-shape curve, normal distribution. And the people that you find on Wall Street, you know, probably fall into that curve pretty well, I think. You know, at one end there are people who you could trust in a room with a pile of uncounted money and never think twice that any of it would go missing; and at the other end of the spectrum, there are people who - no matter what the safeguards - will always try and game the system.

And in the middle is the, you know, the vast bulk of people who are mostly under most circumstances pretty honest. And if the proper regulations and the proper safeguards are in place are not going to do anymore wrong that anybody in any other field.

What makes Wall Street interesting whoever, and especially, you know, on the trading side of things, is you have an industry that has selected and filtered to create a population of people who are very good at coming out on top of zero-sum games. I mean that's what trading is, you know, it's a zero-sum game; someone wins and someone loses. And investment banks go out of their way to find people who are very good at playing those games. So the notion that those people - or at least some of those people - aren't going to try and game the compensation system, you know, is at best, a kind of naive notion.

SIMON: You went to Vassar and won some poetry prizes there.

SPIEGLEMAN: I did.

SIMON: So how did you wind up on Wall Street?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPIEGLEMAN: Well, I wrote poetry as an undergraduate and I was very serious about it, and was sort of a hair's breadth away from pursuing an M.F.A., going into an M.F.A. program, and sort of the eleventh hour I sobered up and realized, you know, I had to pay the rent, and I needed to make some money.

I actually started in the software business. Besides studying English at Vassar, I took a lot of math and science courses, physics courses, some computer science courses. So the quantitative side of my education had, you know, had been well taken care of, and I found a job actually down in D.C. with a small consulting firm that had government contracts, did public policy research and did big data analyses and statistical analyses on large government databases. And that's how I got started.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. So what happened? Did you rediscover literature or your desire to...

SPIEGLEMAN: I had never really, you know, lost my interest in it. I have always been an avid reader and a writer, and really throughout my time on Wall Street and in software, I had written - had been writing poetry - and had always been, from a very young age, a fan of crime fiction. And I had always thought that, you know, I want to try my hand at this.

You know, I've often I mean I thank my lucky stars actually, that I did not go into an M.F.A. program then. Nothing against M.F.A. programs. I was just so young and so inexperienced. And while, you know, I might have had some talent and even some craft, I really have no idea what I would have had to say.

You know, I think just, you know, 20 years of some life experience and 20 years of hanging out on trading floors was actually pretty good education for somebody who's interested in watching people and interested in how they behave under pressure and interested in writing crime fiction.

SIMON: Peter Spiegelman, his new novel, "Thick as Thieves." Thanks so much.

SPIEGLEMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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