Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Five Best Airport Thrillers

Over on the Curzon Group blog, I've been preparing for our airport tour by discussing the five best airporth thrillers of all time. Here's the post....

Before I disappeared to the beach, I promised to list my five favourite airport thrillers of all time. Naturally, these aren’t necessarily the best thrillers ever written. There is no space, for example, for ‘The Secret Agent’ by Joseph Conrad. Nothing by Eric Ambler either. The reason: an airport thriller has to be light, yet still terrific entertainment. Those books are too weighty. So here are five that are fun enough to read by the pool, but also fantastic, enthralling reading for the plane or the pool.

1. From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming.

The best title of all time, if not the best book. And one of the best opening sentences as well, even from one of the masters of the introductory line (and whilst we’re on that subject, was it just me who thought Sebastian Faulk’s opening to the Bond pastiche ‘Devil May Care’ was shamefully weak). Fleming is primarily a prose stylist, and a lot of his plots ranged from the creaky to the incomprehensible. But FRWL cracks along at terrific pace, and has both great villains, and love interest. Perfect in every respect.

2. Berlin Game by Len Deighton:

Len Deighton never wrote a bad book in his life, but in Berlin Game he hit his best form, a surprising achievement for a writer who’d already been churning out books for 15 years. The beginning of the Game, Set and Match trilogy, it introduces to the character of Bernard Samson, probably the most sympathetic fictional spy ever created. Grumbling and harassed, Samson may work in intelligence, but really he’s just a middle-aged executive trying to stay on top of some very complex office politics. And, hey, the wife turns out to be the Russian spy? Now there’s a twist to make you feel uncomfortable.

3. The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth.

It’s probably just me, but I’ve never really been able to get to grips with ‘The Day of the Jackal’. But Forysth’s second book is one of the great thrillers of all time. The story of the German crime reporter who stumbles across a conspiracy to protect former Nazi’s is expertly woven. Forsyth lays out his template of forensically piecing together the plot in precise detail, and he’s followed it with brilliant success ever since. If you want to know how to write a thriller, just keep re-reading The Odessa File.

4. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.

Dinosaurs. They come back to life. And, yup, they eat people. There was always a crazed genius to Crichton’s high-concept techno-thrillers, and none of them did it better than Jurassic Park. His skill was to take some serious science (genetic engineering, in this case) and mix in some pop science as well (in this case, chaos theory) and blend them into a terrific story. Thrillers have always been partly about information – Crichton nailed that completely. The film is okay, but it is the book that is the real masterpiece.

5. The Firm by John Grisham.

Like Forsyth, it was with his second book that Grisham really established his style, and The Firm is far and away his best book (although ‘The Pelican Brief’ is brilliant as well, although it is downhill from there on). The sinister law firm, the exploration of offshore finance, the single, young hero placed in terrible danger, and the paper chase that finally defeats the enemy are all expertly told. Grisham is basically about how brains win out over muscle. A breath-taking read. You’ll have landed on the tarmac, and picked up your bags before you know it.

That’s my top five. Any more suggestions out there?

Friday, 24 July 2009

Death Force 3 & 4

Death Force must be doing okay, because Headline have just commissioned two more books in the series. Fire Force will be out next year, and I'm now working on Shadow Force...which is set among the Somnali pirates.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The MBA Scam.....

In my last Money Week column, I've been looking at how much blame we should put on the MBA course for creating the credit crunch. Here's a taster....

There have been many different culprits put forward for the credit crunch. Greedy, bonus-chasing bankers, asset-inflating monetary authorities, and bubble-blowing politicians have all, with some justification, been blamed for the worst collapse in the global economy since the 1930s.
But perhaps we can pin it all on the MBAs, those clever, impeccably trained young men and women, babbling jargon, and flashing power point presentations, who in the last decade have taken over the world’s leading banks, our biggest corporations, and increasingly government as well.
Some of the main MBA factories certainly seem to think so. Indeed, students at the prestigious of them, the Harvard Business School, have now launched what they call the MBA oath, a managerial equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, which tries to make sure the graduates don’t repeat many of the mistakes made over the past year.
The trouble is, the oath looks like yet more of the kind of meaningless waffle that the MBA has itself been associated with. There is no doubt that the way the global economy is run needs to change, and there would be few better places to start reforming it than with the education system. But if they the Business Schools want to contribute to that, they need a code with real teeth, they need to change what they teach, and how.
Indeed, the mere fact the oath has been launched at all raises the interesting question of how far the MBA can be blamed for the global economic crisis.
Certainly, many of the people who steering our leading banks so calamitously onto the rocks had received the best business education that money can buy.
Andy Hornby, the man in charge of HBOS when it collapsed, had been trained at Harvard Business School. Peter Wuffli, whose management of UBS was so reckless he practically bankrupted Switzerland, had been to that country’s most prestigious business school. Richard Fuld, the man in charge of Lehman Brothers when it went pop was another MBA. So were most of the leading players on Wall Street that led the financial system into crisis last year.
True, to some degree an MBA is just a stepping stone. But if a pilot school was resulting in that many crashes, we’d be asking some touch questions about what was being taught. There is no reason why the business schools shouldn’t be subjected to the same kind of criticism.
It is not hard to see the flaws in their methods. Over the last two decades, the business schools pushed a quasi-scientific approach to business that has turned out to be catastrophic. They have taken something that was essentially unknowable – risk – and persuaded a generation of bankers and managers that it could be easily quantified and traded away. They failed to teach people about the whiplash of the business cycle, and they bred an over-confidence in their methods that in many cases turned out to be fatal. The one thing most bankers needed to take into work was humility, but they weren’t learning much of that at business school.
Worse, they have ramped up expectations unrealistically. Graduating from an elite business school won’t leave much change from a £100,000. With those kinds of debts, students don’t have much choice but to get on the banking, bonus treadmill. There was a bubble of inflated pay-outs, private jets and lavish contracts at the top of business, and it started inside the MBA schools. Even if it unfair to blame the MBA for the credit crunch, the course has still become synonymous with a greedy, asset-stripping, bubble-inflating approach to management.
It is hardly surprising that at least some of the business schools think a re-balancing is needed. The oath makes a start. You can read the whole thing at mbaoath.org, but its starts: “I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner’: and continues “I will manage my enterprise in good faith, guarding against decisions and behaviour that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves”. It then carries on in much the same vein through eight core principles.
There is some recognition of past sins in there. Not many bankers could put their hands on their hearts and say they have always put their company and the wider economy ahead of their own self-interest. Nor could every company director honestly say they have always presented their financial data with complete honesty as the code will now require them to do.
But it is hard to escape the suspicion the pledge comes straight out of the textbook titled ‘How to Re-Brand a Tainted Product’. Most of the clauses look like the kind of guff we are used to seeing served up in the corporate social responsibility pages of annual reports. It is hard to take seriously a promise to “create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.” It is just words, designed to make the person reciting them feel good about themselves.
If the Business Schools were serious about reform, they wouldn’t go for a quick re-branding. They would re-engineer the product from the bottom up.
The MBA courses need to change what they teach and the way that they teach it. There should be less emphasis on financial engineering, and more on real engineering. They should be less emphasis on slick marketing, and more on building decent, good value products. They should drop the pretence that anyone with the right sort of MBA can be dropped into any company and run it properly, and put more emphasis on the enduring culture of a company that has been built up for decades.
At the same time, they might like to cut the fees so students weren’t burdened with such massive debts that they can only pay them off by working for an investment bank. And they should start reminding their students that risk can never be eliminated in business, merely planned for; that the business cycle will always re-emerge, and catch out anyone who hasn’t prepared for it; that mergers and de-mergers are just an expensive distraction from actually creating products; and that the best companies are built patiently over many years by people who love the product, not assembled overnight according to a textbook.
If a generation came out of business school equipped with some of those lessons, who knows, we might even avoid another credit crunch.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Celebrity Capitalism

I couldn't believe how much credulous publicity the British papers gave to the new media venture berween Simon Cowell and Sir Phillip Green. I suspect nothing will ever emerge from it. Anyway, in my Money Week column I've been having a go at celebrity capitalism...here's a taster.

The business pages are looking more like the television or gossip columns every day. Sir Alex Ferguson is teaming up with Sir David Frost to get into the property business. Simon Cowell gets together with Sir Philip Green to launch an entertainment empire. Sir Alan Sugar, the rough-talking host of The Apprentice, is hired by the Prime Minister Gordon Brown as the government’s enterprise tsar.
At this rate, Cheryl Cole will be drafted in as the woman to re-build Northern Rock, Davina McCall will be lined up to replace Sir Stuart Rose at Marks & Spencer, and Katie Price will be appointed as the next Governor of the Bank of England.
It is all nonsense – and damaging nonsense as well. The problem for the UK economy over the last decade has been too much froth and bling, not too little. The ‘celebritisation’ of British business is the very last thing it needs: a return to the more sober values of working hard, saving more, investing in the future and living within your means are the values that should be promoted.
Still, it is hard to escape the way that celebrities are invading what used to be the sober world of the City and government policy.
Sir Alex Ferguson is, without question, a fine football manager, and Sir David Frost a distinguished television interviewer. The pair now believe they can turn that experience into a £1 billion property company. They have set up aAIM Capital Finance with backing from Middle Eastern investors to buy up real estate assets at bargain prices. There is, however, very little evidence to suggest that the pair genuinely have anything to bring to the table except for some well-known names.
Likewise, it is hard to see how the slightly portly duo of Cowell and Green managed to secure such hyperbolic coverage for their television ambitions. Being rude to warbling teenagers from Wigan hardly makes you the man to challenge the might of the Disney empire. Green is an astute trader of assets, and very skilled at working the debt markets to his advantage, but he isn’t an entrepreneur in the sense of setting up new businesses. Top Shop and BHS had been around for years before he got control of them.
Meanwhile, beyond grabbing himself a few headlines at a difficult time, it is hard to see what Brown thought he was doing by appointing Sugar to his government as Enterprise Tsar. Leaving aside the obvious point that ever since 1917 anyone with the title Tsar has been virtually powerless, it is hard to see how Sugar could be the right man for the job. Back in the 1980s, he was an astute, calculating entrepreneur, with a good eye for a market trend, even if turned out to be better at jumping on bandwagons than creating big, world-beating businesses. But The Apprentice has played to the worst stereotypes of business, portraying a cut-throat world of bullying and opportunism that has very little to do with how successful corporations are actually built.
In reality, the very last thing the British economy needs at the moment is to move even further into the territory occupied by Hello! and Heat magazine.
That isn’t to say that business can’t lean anything from TV and pop personalities. The celebrities who fill up the page of Heat magazine know more than most marketing departments about branding. They know how to position themselves in the media, to create a compelling narrative, and to keep coming up with new products. There is nothing wrong with businesses wanting to keep in touch with the modern world, nor should they ignore what is happening outside their industry.
But the UK has suffered from too much bling, not too little.
The story of the British economy over the last decade has been one of flimsiness and flakiness. Debt was built up to extravagant proportions, among consumers, companies, and perhaps most of all by the public sector. The property market was pushed up to ridiculous heights on mortgages that were far too easy to obtain. Buy-to-let tower blocks were thrown up overnight by get-rich-quick speculators in city centres where there was there were very few affluent young professionals to fill them all. Shopping malls were filled up with ‘fast fashion’ made in the Far East, and paid for on store cards. It was an economy driven by shopping, debt and boasts.
Underneath it all, however, there was very little of any real substance.
One of the striking aspects of the boom of 1997 to 2007 – the longest uninterrupted expansion of the British economy in more than a century, as Gordon Brown kept rather tediously reminding us – was how few genuine entrepreneurs it created. In the 1980s, we saw businesses such as GlaxoSmithKline or AstraZeneca rise to the top of the pharmaceuticals industry. In the 1990s, new companies such as Vodafone rose to global prominence in telecoms. But it is very hard to think of a new British company that has taken the world by storm in the past decade. Instead, the business pages have been dominated by City financiers, by private equity houses, and by corporate bosses on acquisition sprees such as the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Sir Fred Godwin. It has been about trading assets, not creating them.
That needs to change. The next decade is going to be about hard work. The UK needs to pay down vast quantities of debt, both personal, and public. It needs to create new industries to fill the gap left by financial services and construction, and do so against the backdrop of rising taxes and tight credit. It will have to get used to living without the easy wealth created by constantly rising house prices. And it will need to learn how to save more and spend less.
It is going to be a slog. We’ll need to be disciplined, sacrificing, and austere. And a fresh wave of celebrity-driven business launches will have very little to teach us about that.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

An Editor's Pick....

Death Force is an Editor's Pick on Play, a great website which I buy from regularly myself. It is also at number two in its war and weestern chart....

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

What Makes A Great Airport Thriller....

Over on The Curzon Group page, we're starting a writers's group blog, loosely modelled on the Kill Zone blog in the US. Tom Cain did a great post yesterday, and today I have done a post on what makes a great airport thriller. I'll reproduce it here, but there is more great stuff on the Curzon page....

The Curzon Group is preparing to embark on what The Bookseller described as the first ever airport tour by a group of authors.

The logic behind it, as I explained to The Bookseller, is pretty obvious. We write what are usually called ‘airport thrillers’. So what better place to sell them than an airport?

But that also set me thinking? What exactly is an ‘airport thriller’?

It’s partly the market. It means a book aimed at people who do a lot of their reading on the beach, or else on business trips. They probably aren’t heavy or devoted readers. They don’t spend hours and hours browsing in a big Waterstone’s. They pick up a couple of books at the airport before they leave the country.

But it is also, and probably more importantly for a writer, a style of book.

To me, a classic airport thriller has to be engrossing enough to make time melt away.
Most of don’t enjoy flying that much – and, as it happens, I really don’t like it at all. It’s dull, and often stressful. So you need something to take that will totally draw you in, getting you involved enough in the story that you’ve collected your bags from the carousel before you realise it.

That means the plot has to be brutal in its grip, and the writing fast enough to leave your breathless.

There is also, I suspect, something exotic and escapist about a great airport thriller.

Air travel doesn’t have much glamour left to it. The idea of the ‘jet set’ has been killed off by Ryanair and Easyjet. But an airport thriller is still a book we read when we’re travelling on business or on holiday, and that is a fun, exciting thing to be doing. We want the book we’re reading to have a bit of glamour as well: some exotic locations, some sex, some wit and panache. It needs to have something of the flavour of a good holiday itself: exciting, memorable, escapist, and most of all great fun.

I wonder what are the ten best airport thrillers of all time?

Funnily enough I’m about to head off to Portugal for two weeks on holiday (and no doubt collecting a couple of airport thrillers at Gatwick on the way).

I’ll try and put together a list of my top ten for the next post? But any suggestions?

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Madoff Fall-Out...

In my Money Week column this week, I've been writing about what the long-term consequences of the Bernard Madoff affair will be for the investment industry. Here's a taster....

Not much in the financial markets can ever be stated with any real certainty. Still, here’s one prediction you can take to the bank. Bernard Madoff isn’t going to be back in the investment business any time soon.
On Monday, a New York court sentenced the world’s most accomplished fraudster to 150 years in jail. It is safe to say that he won’t ever be released.
That at least is some measure of justice. The full scale of Madoff’s fraud may never be finally known. At its peak, Madoff’s firm had $65 billion under management. In the court hearings, some allowance was made for redemptions, but it was estimated somewhere between $10 billion and $20 billion went missing. Since many of his investors came via discreet Swiss private banks, and they are likely to ever go public with the scale of their losses, we may never know exactly how much money disappeared.
His legacy won’t just be felt by the unfortunate investors who had money in the fund. It will ripple out into the entire investment industry. The Madoff affair has exposed whole swathes of the financial services industry to be built on the flimsiest of foundations, surfing on hype, promises and hot air. It has revealed often shockingly lax standards of checking and breath-taking naivety. It was the greatest Ponzi scheme in history. But it was also the greatest wake-up call, an event that is likely to shape the thinking of investors for years to come.
Fairly or unfairly, Madoff will be the lens through which anyone deciding what to do with their money will look at the financial markets. Here are five of the big, long-term changes we can expect to see as the dust settles on the Madoff affair.
One: Hedge Funds.
Madoff, of course, wasn’t really a hedge fund manager. He just banked all the money, and occasionally paid some of it back to people who asked for it. But that was how he described himself, and there is little question that he rode the boom in hedge funds over the past decade. Very few hedge fund managers are fraudsters like Madoff. Most of them are perfectly capable of losing their clients money whilst sticking scrupulously to the letter of every law. But many use similar marketing techniques. They wrap up their strategies in an air of mystery, the way Madoff did. They trade on contacts and social cachet to raise funds, just the way he did.
There is nothing fair about tarring them with the same brush – but then nobody ever claimed business was fair. In reality, the collapse of the Madoff scheme is going to make it very hard for anyone to go around claiming some secret but brilliant system for beating the markets. And that is going to make life much harder for the whole hedge fund industry.
Two: Private Banks:
It is probably no accident that much of Madoff’s money came from the private banks and the wealth management industry. For the last decade, private banking has been one of the most lucrative corners of the financial markets. Managing money for the wealthy has been an easy way for banks to lift their profits: they have more assets to play around with, and they are a lot less likely to complain about the fees.
The pitch from the private banks was that they could steer their clients through the treacherous minefields of the financial markets. That, however, is looking like a fairly ridiculous boast right now. Many steered their clients straight into Madoff’s fund, despite numerous warning signs. In the light of that, many of the wealthy are likely to decide that they can do without the fancy cheque book that comes with a private bank account. They can stick with the Bognor Regis Provident Mutual for their current account, and manage their own investments themselves – they aren’t likely to make as much of a hash of it as their private banker.
Three: Regulators:
The Securities and Exchange Commission in New York looks the most exposed from the Madoff scandal. It was warned about his firm, but failed to act. But regulators around the world are going to be studying how they missed the greatest fraud of all time for so long. The problem was clear enough: Too much box-ticking, and not enough looking under the bonnet by people who actually know how the markets work. If that lesson is learned – admittedly a big if – then the scandal could pave the way for an overhaul of the way the financial markets are regulated.
Four: Investors:
Nobody likes being ripped off. In the wake of the Madoff affair, anyone putting money into a fund is going to ask much harder questions. They’ll want to know where it’s being invested and why. Any kind of ‘too good to be true’ promise isn’t going to work.
The lesson that investors are likely to take away from the affair is that if you don’t understand it, don’t invest in it. That is going to make any kind of complex financial instrument a very hard sell.
Five: Scepticism:
Throughout the financial markets, Madoff’s overall legacy is likely to be a far greater level of scepticism. He traded on a sense of sophistication, of giving people access to a closed world, and deflected hard question with a sense that it was improper to ask too closely how the returns were generated. Right across the industry, everyone is going to be asking far harder questions, probing for weakness, and looking for potential frauds. Whether a firm is honest or dishonest, there will be far fewer places to hide.
In the wake of Madoff’s imprisonment, both investors and regulators are going to be a lot more dubious about the claims of money managers. That is no doubt a good thing. But at $65 billion, it was an expensive way to learn what should be a pretty simple lesson.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Porsche Feud...

In the Spectator this week, I've been writing about the Porsche/VW feud. It's a greta story, and one that suggests that whatever else they might be good at, nobody in Germany knows how to organise a decent takeover batttle.