The First Billion
You understand finance. You really do. It's a little more than the
influx (seemingly limited) and outflow (seemingly continuous) into
and out of your wallet and bank account, but not much more. Really.
Here is what finance boils down to. Look outside at a birdfeeder.
What do you see? You see birds of all sorts pecking away at the
food and at each other. The birds are the brokers, the high
rollers, and the day traders. Two of them won't share the same
perch. There's probably food around elsewhere, but a full or even
half-full bird feeder is easy pickings. The more aggressive birds
will try to chase the others away. Then there is the neighborhood
stray cat. That's the government. It has sharp claws, treads
quietly and tries to keep things orderly, but has no wings. It
makes an inept appearance once in a while and occasionally grabs a
laggard sparrow too slow or stupid to get away, but for the most
part it is useless. You're the investor, feeding the maw. The bird
feeder becomes empty and all the birds go away. You lug the
35-pound bag of seed out, fill up the feeder, and start the whole
cycle again. If you got something back, like gratitude, it would be
nice, but the most you'll probably get are some stains on your deck
to clean up. And so it continues.
That's pretty much all you need to know. If you want to get more
deeply into it, however, pick up a novel by Christopher Reich.
Reich's specialty is in the area of financial market thrillers.
That term may seem like a contradiction in terms --- along the
lines of "jumbo shrimp" or, alas, "legal ethics" --- but that's
what he does, and does it quite well. His books are giant "for
examples" of how the financial world works. I'm not talking about
walking into Best Buy and trying to haggle the 16-year-old clerk
into letting you finance that plasma screen TV you've had your eye
on. I'm talking 67th floor, gnomes of Zurich stuff, the stuff that
makes you feel helpless, inept, poor and really, really
THE FIRST BILLION is Reich's third novel, and while Reich at times
attempts to do a little too much with it, the title remains a good
solid read. The story centers on John "Jett" Gavallan and his
company, Black Jet Securities, as they prepare to take Mercury,
Russia's top media company, public on the New York Stock Exchange.
Gavallan is taking major risks to do this, including the use of
Black Jet's own capital to float the offering. When rumors of fraud
start to swirl in the financial waters surrounding the offering,
Gavallan dispatches Grafton Byrnes, his business partner and best
friend, to Russia to personally investigate whether or not Mercury
is everything it is supposed to be. When Byrnes disappears,
Gavallan starts an investigation of his own, attempting to salvage
the future of his company as well as rescue Byrnes.
His search takes him on a dangerous trail across the United States,
from San Francisco to West Palm Beach, and then around the world
from Zurich to Moscow, where he discovers the truth about Mercury,
Black Jet, and the enigmatic Cate Magnus, who mysteriously and
abruptly left Gavallan's life as he was about to reach the pinnacle
of his success. Gavallan discovers that Black Jet is being used by
an entity far larger than Mercury for a purpose far more diabolical
than a stock fraud. In Russia, almost alone, with only his wits to
carry him through, Gavallan finds that he must put a stop to what
is about to occur, for the stakes are much larger than his
Reich does an incredible job of explaining to his audience the
complexities of higher finance and the way money works --- he makes
it not only understandable but also exciting. Speaking only for
myself, making such a topic understandable is akin to explaining
the concept of rocket propulsion to a six-week-old beagle and
seeing the light of comprehension spring into its eyes. There are
many parts to the game Reich sets up, and while it may seem to take
him a while to get the board operational, you'll be glad that
things move slowly before he really picks up speed and starts
moving things along.
If there's a problem at all with THE FIRST BILLION, it's that many
of the characters are a touch too complex. Gavallan would have made
an interesting character without his Gulf War baggage, which for
some reason wasn't entirely convincing. Ditto for Magnus, whose
background slowly became somewhat improbable. And I probably could
have done without the pairing of Boris and Tatiana; I kept waiting
for one of them to say "Look! There go Moose and Squirrel!"
Additionally, THE FIRST BILLION might have been a more streamlined
read if Reich had been able to resist stopping the action
intermittently to fill in the backstory, a process that eventually
These shortcomings, however, are minor compared to what Reich has
done, which is to rip back the veil to reveal what really, and
ultimately, goes on behind the scenes, and to make you want to know
as well. Recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011