As the saying goes, better late than never. I hope it applies here, because I promised this review some months ago, but then experienced certain personal setbacks which I won’t divulge (keeping it mysterious, as is appropriate to the subject matter of this blog).
The Tipping Point, by Walter Danley, is a selection of Book Club Reading List. The book was a fun, breezy read for me because of it’s fast plotting, tension and suspense and because it took me into an unfamiliar world (beyond my comfort zone as a crime novel reviewer), that of big business and its sometimes ruthless, cutthroat practices. Given the fame and notoriety of both the book and the Hollywood film, The Big Short, which chronicles the murky business practices of the big banks (and the savvy investors who bet against them), leading to the collapse of the economy in 2008, I was anticipating another informative read with the Tipping Point. I wasn’t disappointed. In this case, the author, Walter Danley, succeeded in making the arcane world of real estate investment quite fascinating, by incorporating it inside a face paced thriller, with corpses piling up faster than you can say portfolios, stock options and contracts.
The strength of the book lies in it’s clever, fast paced plotting and the author’s ability to make difficult, complex business practices both comprehensible to a novice reader as well as entertaining. Without giving away too much of the plot (since these details are revealed early on), a major real estate business, Cap Vest, experiences a number of shocking setbacks. First, three of their top partners are murdered one after the other, together with several other associates. Secondly, the surviving partners discover a massive embezzlement fraud and suspect the murders are linked with it, though nothing is as it seems and this turns out to be more difficult to prove than the reader might think. Thirdly, the remaining partners are disconcerted by the revelation that some of their top partners,including some of the deceased, were using the drug Ecstasy to “enhance their consciousness,” supposedly with an eye to increasing their effectiveness as businessmen. And this – the drug use – is what one partner describes as “The Tipping Point,” that point at which the company – through the unethical practices of some of its top partners – veered over the edge, heading for ruin and collapse.
Into this heady mix comes an assassin straight out of Israel – and I have to say one of the most entertaining and original hit men I’ve encountered in crime fiction. He has a very original take on his profession, which I won’t reveal, except to say it’s not your stereotypical psychopath. This is an assassin given to reflection. He was one of my favorite characters in the book.
The reader is carried along on a wild roller coaster ride, watching the assassin systematically pick off one body after another, wondering who hired him and why while following the efforts of partner, Garth Wainright, together with several police detectives, as they attempt to track down the murderer and the people behind him. After a rousing chase sequence in the latter part of the book, all loose ends are tied up, the villains are revealed, their motives made clear and (spoiler) the company just barely escapes teetering over the edge into financial and social ruin. However, there is one delicious twist at the end which took me completely by surprise and made me laugh out loud. So I won’t reveal it, except to say I was rooting for both of the characters involved (against all my moral principles).
Danley does a nice job balancing suspenseful plotting, sexy love scenes, violent encounters with some very informative and interesting descriptions of the world of big business and real estate investment. He has a sure touch when it comes to writerly discipline, giving us just enough info before taking us back into the plot or some romantic encounter. He also displays a masterly control over the business info, since this is clearly something he knows a lot about. It shows in the writing and inspires confidence in the reader.
Less successful, in my opinion, were some of the love scenes and romantic interludes – designed, I would imagine, to give spice to the story and well as depth to the characters. But to this reader, the dialogue in these scenes seemed a trifle forced and stilted, and I found the scenes more a distraction than anything. I wanted to get back to the actual story. And in fact, when we get to the business scenes, the dialogue seems right on the money and completely convincing. We are taken with great confidence into this fictional world and given the deep satisfaction fiction is supposed to provide: allowing us to vicariously experience a world different from our own. What surprised me is that the dialogue involving the assassin displayed even more authority and control, leading me to wonder if the author also had experience in this area of employment as well (small witticism).
However, I breezed through the book because I wasn’t that heavily invested emotionally in any of the characters, including the very sympathetic lead partner who spearheads the investigation, Garth Wainright (who figures in the sequel). Partly this is simply a result of my own prejudices. It’s hard for me to care about the plight of super rich people struggling to protect their investments and their corporations, even ethical businessmen dedicated to the good of the firm and their investors. But that’s just me, former social-justice minded Jesuit and former Catholic Worker in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. These are very rich people running about in this book, as desperate as they may be, with huge assets most of us can only dream about. Even the narrator conveys a bouncy enthusiasm for the glories of the good life, whether it’s a ten bedroom mansion on the shores of Lake Tahoe or tropical island beach, replete with sun umbrella, mai tais and a sexy mistress in her bikini sitting nearby. Well, I lived in a tropical island beach house in Phuket, Thailand, for three years, with the crystalline blue waters a mere minute’s walk from my verandah and I know it’s not all it’s cracked up to be (another witticism). I would prefer greater vision in a crime novel – beyond wealth and privilege and luxury. But that’s just me.
My final summation = a very entertaining, informative read that not only taught me a lot about big business but actually enabled me to experience it in fictional terms and that was a refreshing experience. The roller coaster ride of a thriller plot was fun and absorbing, and I really appreciated the expert way the author balanced all the elements of his story, knowing just when to bring one element to a close and draw us quickly into another. Fun and informative, but not profound. There is an interesting reflection towards the end of the book about the classic Seven Deadly Sins (avarice, envy, wrath, sloth, gluttony, lust and pride) and the manner in which seven of the nefarious characters exemplify these sins. It’s clear this provided the author with a certain framework for the book and a moral perspective about the perils of unethical business practices. As interesting as this was, it wasn’t quite enough for me (picky, picky). However, does every crime novel have to have gravitas and significance and plunge us into existential questions about the meaning of life? I think not.
Officially, I’ve given it four stars, though my personal prejudices lean more towards three and a half.
Amazon page for the Tipping Point.
Author Walter Danley’s page.