Sometimes random themes emerge across books and podcasts, and before you know it, you’ve fallen down a fascinating rabbit hole — in this case the world of financial crime.
After my fellow crime aficionado Susie G. mentioned that characters from Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility had featured in her previous novel The Glass Hotel, I decided to take a look. And indeed, here is the much fuller story of brother and sister Paul and Vincent, the former a troubled young composer, the latter a rootless young woman catapulted into the world of the ultra-rich after marrying the owner of the hotel where she was a bartender. Alas, things soon go awry: it’s not too long before she’s catapulted back out again when a giant Ponzi scheme implodes in New York…
Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel (Picador 2020)
First line: Begin at the end.
This is a novel about all sorts of things vanishing — money, people, relationships, futures. It painstakingly explores how people kid themselves about what they do or don’t know, or allow themselves to be pulled into something dodgy or shady or too good to be true. As always, St. John Mandel weaves together the messy, fascinating stories of people’s lives with great empathy, but is also unsparing about people’s weaknesses and the heavy price of fraud, whether paid by those who perpetrate it or by their highly unfortunate victims. The Ponzi scheme at the heart of the novel draws on New York financier Bernie Madoff’s infamous swindle, which lasted decades and involved an eye-watering $50 billion.
Then I tumbled into the Liar Liar podcast, hosted by journalists Kate McClymont and Tom Steinfort. In the course of ten episodes, they examine the staggering case of Melissa Caddick, an outwardly successful Sydney businesswoman who spent years defrauding investors — mainly family and friends — with an elaborate Ponzi scheme of her own.
At the heart of this story lie the following questions: what kind of person systematically defrauds (among many others) her own parents and the best friend she has known since childhood? What kind of person takes $23 million of other people’s retirement savings and blows them on a lavish house, cars, jewellery, shoes, ski trips to Aspen, while still cheerily attending their birthday parties? What happens when lies infuse every aspect of a person’s professional and personal life so completely that nothing else really remains?
The core strength of Liar Liar is its granular examination of Caddick’s evolution as a con artist and the specific techniques she used (sadly, preying on those closest to you is a hallmark of fraudsters, because it’s easier for them to exploit the existing bonds and trust between you). It also deliberately and rightly makes space for Caddick’s victims to relate the horrendous personal consequences of her crimes: the devastation of retirement savings being wiped out, the bleak financial futures many now face, together with the emotional fallout of having had one’s trust so comprehensively betrayed. A sad and cautionary tale.
Last but not least, I can announce the three winners of Mrs Peabody’s Punishment Giveaway competition. Congratulations to Lisa D., Iain M., and Sarah Q! Copies of the book will be winging their way to you shortly 🙂
Congratulations to the winners! I know they’re going to have a great reading experience, Mrs. P! You discuss such an interesting set of questions here about the people who set up and run Ponzi schemes. What sort of person does that in the first place, and what sort of person is willing to turn friends and family into victims? There are people like that, and it’s fascinating to reflect on how they think.
There’s a fair bit of reflection on that in the podcast, Margot, and one thing it focuses on is early signs of dishonesty and sociopathy, and how the Ponzi years might have been averted if Caddick had faced the consequences of her actions much earlier on (e.g. when she was still employed by finance companies, who chose to let her go after finding irregularities rather than reporting her to the authorities).