An Agent of Deceit
By Chris Morgan Jones
TAX havens are like plumbing: they flush money around the globe so efficiently that few people notice – until someone like Chris Morgan Jones writes a thriller about a sinister energy magnate in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Jones, whose CV includes 11 years at industrial investigations company Kroll, brings the banality of offshore crime to life in 'An Agent of Deceit' an understated debut that carries a special resonance in the wake of Mr Putin's bare-knuckled presidential victory.
The plot hinges on three men – one bad, one good and one gutless – whose work revolves around the billions of dollars and other assets that slither in and out of opaque jurisdictions stretching from the Cayman Islands to Vanuatu. Like the spies in a John le Carre novel, they are surprisingly plausible.
The bad guy is Konstantin Malin, a career bureaucrat ensconced in Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources when not residing at his compound on a seaside cliff with terraced gardens on the Cote d'Azur.
Malin controls much of the country's oil and gas industry, making him wealthy and terrifying by turns as he buys up assets in neighbouring countries – refineries in Bulgaria, petroleum fields in the Caspian, PVC makers in Turkey.
The good guy is Ben Webster, a former Moscow reporter for the 'Times' who now works in London for a business-intelligence consultancy called Ikertu. A decade earlier, Webster saw a young, idealistic Russian colleague get her throat slashed for asking too many questions. When a client hires Webster to expose Malin as a crook, he glimpses a chance to avenge her death.
The gutless wonder is Malin's front man, Richard Lock. He's the plumber in this story. A Dutch-born lawyer, he has spent 15 years washing the Russian's money and investments through a chain of companies. Tied to Malin through marriage and vapid greed, Lock is a master of "routine, dishonest transactions".
As Webster begins disentangling this chain, Lock comes under pressure from legal proceedings in New York and Paris, piquing the interest of journalists. Could Lock comment on allegations that an Irish company linked to him is a money- laundering operation?
Before long, Lock is on the run, with Webster, Russian goons and the law in pursuit, not to mention bodyguards and counter-surveillance teams.
Morgan Jones handles the large cast of characters and shifting venues with grace. His real triumph, though, lies in how he gradually makes us sympathise with Lock. As the book opens, we see the second-rate lawyer for what he is: a complacent bagman who thinks of little beyond his own creature comforts. Bit by bit, though, we learn how his weakness and lack of ambition have turned him into a stooge with a perpetual backache.
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