The publishers of Chris Morgan Jones's debut novel, An Agent of Deceit, claim to have won the rights to the book "following fiercely contested auctions in the UK and the US". It was money well spent.
Jones's book is no page-turner. It is a "thriller" without fast-paced action but with a pervasive sense of foreboding.
It is a story that you would expect to read once every six months in the form of an investigative report on the pages of a good business daily.
It is a tale of corruption in international business, money-laundering on a colossal scale, shadowy oligarchs and the terrifying place that is modern-day Russia. And, in this world of Allan Stanford and Bernie Madoff, it seems almost topical.
The tormented Richard Lock is, apparently, the richest foreign investor in Russia. But this lawyer (and money launderer-in-chief) cannot provide any plausible account of how he came upon this wealth. Ben Webster, who is also tormented by his own demons, is a journalist-turned-investigator employed by a private London business intelligence agency. And he has an axe to grind against Konstantin Malin, the dark oligarch who controls all aspects of Lock's life. But does he? Or is Malin himself a puppet in the hands of far more ruthless men in the Kremlin? Who really is the agent of deceit?
Another Russian billionaire — no saint himself — contracts Webster's agency to expose Malin. Driven by the mysterious death of a female journalist "friend" in Russia ten years ago, Webster immerses himself in the task. Then one of Malin's former associates is found dead after a meeting with Webster, who must now assume that he is himself under threat. Meanwhile, the hapless Lock, who is not cut out for this kind of thing, is coming under intense pressure to explain his wealth.
An Englishman by birth, he longs for a normal life with his wife in London and is finally prepared to make impossible decisions and do all that it takes to achieve that goal. He realises that Webster is his best bet to nail Malin.
The action, such as it is, takes place in London, Moscow and Berlin. About the most thrilling stuff that happens in the novel involves the curious practice of dubious Russian businessmen removing the batteries of their mobile phones and placing them on the desk alongside the phones when engaged in face-to-face conversation. Webster attempts to arm Lock with a phone that turns into a recorder once the battery is removed (a toy developed by Israel's Mossad, Jones informs us) and send him to a meeting with Malin.
Jones's main characters do not inspire. Their background stories, especially Webster's, are not explained in detail. And there is little or no real heroism about them. Lock comes across as a weak man with absolutely no control over events in his life.
Jones is on home turf here. Having worked at the world's largest business intelligence agency for 11 years, he has also advised governments, Russian oligarchs, New York banks, London hedge funds and African mining companies.
Jones is no Frederick Forsyth, or Nelson de Mille, even. But his style of writing does have a John Le Carre feel about it.