What did you do before you started writing?
I was an investigator, of sorts; like the book’s main character, Ben Webster, I was part detective, part spy. For eleven years I worked for a New York company called Kroll. Kroll is the world’s largest investigations company: it checks out people before deals, advises clients on disputes, investigates and helps recover money from frauds. It does this all over the world, and gets involved in some fascinating situations. I worked in the London office and specialised in Eastern European work, particularly for Russians and in Russia.
What made you want to write about this world?
To start with, the characters. The range of people was extraordinary. I worked for clients from all manner of occupations – oligarchs, ministers, chief executives, entrepreneurs, lawyers, bankers, hedge fund managers – across every sector and almost every country in the world. Then there were the people I worked with – both my colleagues and the specialists who allowed people like me, the generalists, to gain access to information, wherever it may be. They were as diverse as the clients, and might be journalists, academics, private detectives, or businesspeople in their own right (I got excellent information before with the help of fish farmers and advertising executives). There was something about the job that attracted interesting, often eccentric people, and together they seemed to provide material for a rich and diverting cast.
But the main attraction was the stories. There were just so many, and the bulk of them truly revealing – not just for the glimpse they gave of a world that usually isn’t keen to be observed but for what they told you about the people making them happen. All our clients had different problems, and frequently, especially on the more juicy projects, we saw them when they had a great deal either to win or to lose. Stakes were high, in other words, and the sense of peril that resulted often high as well. These stories took place on every continent, and would take you from smelters in Siberia to hedge funds in Connecticut to less than reputable lawyers in the Caribbean in an instant.
Why this story first?
There are two main characters in the book: an investigator called Ben Webster and his quarry, Richard Lock. Lock has spent his career hiding the proceeds of a sustained campaign of corruption by a Russian energy magnate, and having lost his family and his identity is beginning to fear for his life, and his soul. Such people exist all over the world, acting as frontmen for people who want to keep their financial affairs secret, owning things on others’ behalf and allowing their identity to act as a shield for various types of crime. A handful meet a sticky end, but most come unstuck one way or another. I came across them all the time in my work, and was always fascinated by their predicament: how they ever found themselves in that position, how they felt as, as always seemed to happen, their complicated fictions were unpicked and they faced shame and ruin. In short, they struck me as an interesting breed, especially at a time when the sort of corruption they often represent is becoming such a significant global concern.
An Agent of Deceit is published by Macmillan