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July 31, 2003

A Very Corrupt Trading Floor

By Gregory Bresiger

Also in this article

  • A Very Corrupt Trading Floor
  • Page 2

Man in the Middle

by Ken Morris

(Bancroft Press, Baltimore, Maryland, $25. 280 pages).

Reviewed by Gregory Bresiger

Here is a salty adventure that is set in the middle of the trading industry.

Should one take it along on summer holiday this year? Is it a good read?

Well, that depends. The average trading professional usually doesn't have time for novels. And many trading professionals, even if they had all the time in the world, wouldn't touch them.

That's because he or she has so much else to read, many things that seem so much more relevant. And the quality of fiction writing is another reason why few traders - few professionals - seem to have given up on novels. It's understandable given the plethora of garbage that is published in a nation that no longer seems to produce many Theodore Dreisers, Sinclair Lewises or Jack Londons.

Nevertheless, the reason to read "Man in the Middle," a sometimes bawdy, sometimes violent and often stark work, is this: Its central character is a trader who stumbles into the middle of an international drug cartel that is running a huge trading firm.

Peter Neil, the central character, finds himself going from a young college graduate on the verge of bankruptcy to a master of the universe trader. The education and rise of this 21st century Horatio Alger of the trading room held my attention.

But the dark side of his rise is that he also finds himself working for a sleazy firm, a firm whose leaders commissioned the murder of his mother. That's because she discovered that it is part and parcel of a drug cartel. His new employer - whose generosity and profitability practically pulled him out of the gutter - uses dirty trading methods. These include backdating transactions and insider trading. This notorious firm will do anything to protect its profits and power.

And those unfortunate people who find out the true nature of this horrible mysterious firm die under strange circumstances. Then all sorts of people become rich by saying that the circumstances of death were not strange. Authorities are paid off and become dupes of the firm. The regulators seem, at times, befuddled by this monster firm that is masterful in covering its tracks.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has a mole that protects this dirty business until one mid-level official, a lonely heart with an addiction for cola, sets out to bring the cartel down. In the process, he risks his life and forms an at times shaky alliance with Neil. By the end of the novel, I think the average reader is not surprised. Predictably, truth, justice and the American Way have triumphed.

If Morris wrote a novel about the American invasion of Iraq, then, in the end, Baghdad would end up as peaceful as Des Moines. As I said above, no one would confuse Morris' style with the realistic novels of the great American writers who had many disturbing points to make.

The Artist

The resolution of the story is neither thought provoking nor earthshattering. Still, Morris is a good craftsman, but not ready to qualify as an artist. He is good at creating characters and depicting life in the trading trenches.

So is this all worth it?