February 1, 2016
From the godfather of the financial thriller: five books and five movies that get Wall Street right
by Michael M. Thomas
In honor of the publication of Fixers, Michael M. Thomas‘ big novel of big money on Wall Street, we asked the novelist and former Lehman Brothers partner about the books and movies that get the Street right. Here’s what he came up with.
Sometime in the early ‘70s, when I was still an investment-banking partner at Lehman Brothers, then just on the verge of its first Icarus-like fall from the sky, I found myself reading Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit on a flight to London. I was by then growing sick of Wall Street (and vice versa, I suspect). After a dozen years, I was increasingly finding the work and the company one was required to keep intellectually and culturally stultifying and morally negligible. I had read somewhere that Little Dorrit was among Dickens’s best novels, and out of a desperate need for artistic and philosophical enrichment of a professional life measured in equal portions of money-grubbing, hypocrisy and sycophancy, I decided to give it a go.
About a fifth of the way into the novel, Dickens introduces us to a swindling stock promoter named Merdle. As I read about him and his ascent in London society, it suddenly flashed on me that this guy had been in my office only a few days earlier. It was at that moment that I realized that finance could be a subject for serious literature, although it would be a few more years before I would try to put that revelation into practice.
If I may say so, Wall Street isn’t a subject that easily lends itself to meaningful fiction. On the Street, the devil is in the details—and there are just too damn many of them. Most Wall Street novels tend to be narrow in scope: tricks of the trade—nowadays often involving stolen trading algorithms—superimposed on fairly boilerplate plots involving murder and mayhem. Imagine a stock or bond prospectus written by Mary Higgins Clark and you’ll get the idea.
I like to think on a bigger scale. To show how finance and the powers it wields affect the wider world in which the rest of us live. The novels about finance that I respect most do that. Here are a few that I recommend:
Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, and Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now: Consider these an “entry,” as in horse-racing, with 1 and 1A on their saddlecloths. Trollope’s swindler Melmotte is the direct descendent of Dickens’s Merdle. The lesson is that Bernard Madoff was nothing new.
Emile Zola, Money (L’Argent): I really think this is the best novel I know about the world of speculation and fast-dealing. Zola puts into words what Degas put into chalk and paint in his pictures of the Paris Bourse at work.
Theodore Dreiser, The Financier: This makes every list I have ever read of the greatest business/finance novels ever. I couldn’t get through it, but whom am I to quarrel with so overwhelming a consensus?
Louis Auchincloss, The Embezzler. This fine novel – no one captures the Wall Street ancien regime better than Auchincloss – is based on the career and fall of Richard Whitney, the dazzling scion of finance royalty.
Paul Erdman, The Crash of ’79. Back in 1980, Institutional Investor put me on its cover alongside the rubric “Wall Street’s First Bestselling Author.” That was in error. The honor belonged to Paul Erdman. Crash… is a page-turner of the first order.
Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoy’s explanation to his young son of what Wall Street does remains the gold standard. And the rest of the novel is damn good.
Finally, my own The Ropespinner Conspiracy, which is the true precursor of Fixers. It’s based on the career of the great Citibanker Walter Wriston, who famously proclaimed “Countries don’t go broke,” an opinion that has subsequently been disproved around the world in cities from Buenos Aires to Athens. Like Fixers, it looks at reality and gives it a twist.
Of course, it follows that people who ask me what novels about finance I like want to know what Wall Street movies I recommend. Here’s my short list.
Wall Street. Oliver Stone’s film isn’t great, but is immortalized by the line “Greed is good” – and how can you beat a character named Gordon Gekko?
The Big Short. Fun, engaging, outraging and accurate if a bit skewed. If you need to understand its final frames, read Fixers.
Margin Call. Pretty good through and through, although I find the premise unconvincing. Should be watched in conjunction with Inside Job.
All My Sons. The corrupt conjunction of business and government tellingly explored by Arthur Miller.
Barbarians at the Gate. This has never gotten the acclamation it deserves. I consider it far and away the best, most penetrating and yet entertaining Wall Street movie ever made.
So there you have it, folks. Good reading and watching for those long, lonely evenings after you’ve finished Fixers and are thirsting for more.
Have a question about Wall Street? Always wanted to know what bankers gossip about over martinis, or wondered if they’re all laughing at us? Now’s your chance to ask an insider!
Tweet your questions @melvillehouse using the hashtag #AskAWallStreetInsider
Michael M. Thomas is the bestselling author of nine novels, including The Ropespinner Conspiracy, Hard Money, Hanover Place, and Love and Money. His journalism has appeared widely, including in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and in a regular column for the New York Observer.