Calculated Risk Interview with Tacoma News Tribune

Interview with Tacoma News Tribune

Tacoma, Washington

There are two likely responses most of us would have to the question, “How safe is your money?”
1. “What money?
2. “Well, now that you mention it, I don’t know.”

In a way, author Katherine Neville is interested in both responses. According to her latest novel, “A Calculated Risk”, our money exists in increasingly phantom forms and isn’t very safe at all.

And as the saying goes, Neville knows whereof she speaks. She blazed her way onto the best-seller list a few years ago with a novel called “The Eight,” a labyrinthine tale set in both the Middle Ages and the 1970s and spun the legend of Charlemagne’s lost chess pieces.

But before writing “The Eight,” Neville worked for a Big 8 – CPA firm, that is. She also designed financial computer programs for the likes of Honeywell, OPEC and the Algerian government. She worked with computers for Uncle Sam and served as a vice president at Bank of America.

In fact, Neville’s been such a globe-trotting computer wizard that she seemed to regard her 17-city book tour — which paused at Seattle’s Four Seasons Hotel — as little more than a Sunday drive.

“It’s been fun,” she said finishing a cup of Starbucks in the Four Seasons lobby. “Most people are drawn to the computer fraud in the novel, but actually I tried to include just about every kind of large-scale theft that I could think of. I guess the computer stuff just has more appeal.”

Most of “A Calculated Risk” is appealing partly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, partly because it’s a carnival of dizzying subplots, but mainly because it skewers greed and will scare the balance sheet out of anyone who does anything with money except hide it under a mattress. And Neville will have even you taking a second glance at the mattress.

The protagonist of “A Calculated Risk” is a young woman named Verity Banks. (Like Dickens, Neville is a novelist who believes characters’ names were meant to have fun with.) Verity is almost too smart for her own good and decidedly fed up with the boring middle managers at the San Francisco bank in which she works.

So to show the dullards how vulnerable their international banking system is, she decides to steal (temporarily) many millions of dollars, then patiently explain how she did it. Along the way, she enters a friendly competition with her former mentor, a handsome, weird, reclusive computer genius named Zoltan Tor. The hunkish hacker Z-Man is like a cross between Bill Gates and Warren Beatty.

From there the subplots proliferate like a hard-drive gone haywire. We get a high-speed tour not just of international computer fraud but of counterfeit currencies, swiped securities, cornered markets and inside trading. Of course, both in romance and finance, our heroine Verity bytes off more than she can program.

Neville says she got the idea for “A Calculated Risk” some 10 years ago, when she worked for Bank of America. “At first my worry was that people would read the book, get ideas and commit fraud of some kind,” she said. “But then, as each year went by and another huge financial crime occurred, I worried that people would think I was just borrowing from the headlines.
“There are a few more safeguards in international financial than there were in the’80s,” she said. “But people still figure that only 15 percent of the losses are accounted for, so the ripoffs are still in the billions of dollars. All you have to do is look at the BCCI scandal to get a hint of the sums involved.”

Two simple premises guiding Neville’s novel are hard to dismiss. The first: When human beings exchanged things of value, such as cows or animal hides, theft was difficult. Coins and jewelry are easier to than cows, bank notes are easier than coins and ghostly electronic impulses are easiest of all — because a thief doesn’t actually have to pocket them, and because they can represent massive amounts of cash.

The second premise: In the age of computer-enhanced global economy, the world still operates with horse-and-buggy methods. “We need more international agreements on how to trade money with computers, how to print currencies, how to complete banking transactions — everything.” Neville said.

The banking VP-turned-author is a renaissance woman (she’s worked as a fashion model and commercial photographer) whose literary tastes belong to the golden age of the novel.

“I love Dickens, Alexander Dumas, even John Galsworthy,” she confessed “I like the baroque plots and melodrama. I like to write little caricatures that remind me of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches.”

Her unpretentious attitude toward the novel makes for fast, fun but informative reading. The love scenes are a little wooden, and some of the subplots are outlandish, but “A Calculated Risk” is as entertaining a cautionary tale as you’re likely to encounter.

Neville’s extensive use of chess in “The Eight” has made her an international favorite of chess masters, who constantly write her with arcane information about famous games and matches. (In “A Calculated Risk,” she throws in a match featuring one of the Rothchilds.)

“Chess is very adaptable for literary purposes, of course,” Neville said, “but it also seems an inexhaustible source of lore. I’m the world’s worst (chess) player, but the grand masters have invited me to give a paper in Moscow on some little-known piece of chess history.”

Although she lives in Virginia, Neville has been on the move in Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Turkey, researching a novel that’s set between the world wars.

“I’m discovering not so much how history repeats itself as how it presents us with similar choices. I wish everyone would read John Maynard Keynes’ “The Economic Consequences of Peace” again. Now that the (Berlin) Wall is down, the real work begins. We’re going to need something like the Marshall Plan.”

As for America’s brewing bank problems, Neville claims to be almost as much in the dark as, say, your average bank examiner. “I can’t say how big the bank crisis will be,” she says, “because no one has told us how big the S&L crisis was. But I do argue that the 1980s were virtually identical to the 1880s, the age of Jay Gould and the other robber barons.

“What interested me at B of A was that someone who once worked for us would get caught mishandling funds at another bank, but B of A wouldn’t bother to go back over it’s own books to see if it had happened before. That was amazing to me.”
And where does the voice of financial doom and gloom put her money?

“Well, I don’t really have that much to worry about,” she said with the sly smile of a chess player. “But I do my best to see that it’s secure and stable, and I sure don’t let it lie idly around in banks or the stock exchange.”