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When journalist Ted Saddler writes an article suggesting that the People’s Bank in India is ripping off the poorest people in the country, he is approached by Erin, an executive with a big American bank, who suggests he’s been fed false information and should do a bit of digging. A former Pulitzer winner, Ted is now middle-aged, world-weary and happy to be a desk journalist, but something about Erin’s story intrigues him. When his boss decides he should go to India to follow the story, he soon finds his views changing, as he meets the head of the bank and some of the people it has helped. Meantime, at his request, Erin is working with a hacker friend of Ted to investigate the head of her own bank, who she believes is behind the attacks on the People’s Bank. Cut in with this main strand is the story of Anila, a young woman from a village where the people live hand to mouth, who decides to ask for a loan from the Bank to set up her own little business.
The book follows a fairly traditional thriller format of goodies against baddies leading to a spectacular climax, but the quality of Ferris’ writing lifts it well above average. There’s a strong political message in the book, about how the poor of the third world are pawns in the power games of their own politicians and the rich and influential institutions of the West. Western banks and the World Bank don’t come out of the story well – actually that’s an understatement. They’re shown as corrupt from the top down and run on the whole by maniacal, amoral power-junkies, while the People’s Bank is shown to be an altruistic venture run solely for the purpose of supporting micro-businesses to help the poor rise out of their destitution. To be honest, I thought this aspect was all a bit too clear-cut – in reality, the situation on both sides is considerably more complex than I felt Ferris showed. However, it’s difficult to fully explore a political argument within the context of a thriller so some degree of over-simplification is probably necessary.
The characterisation is excellent, despite being based on the cliché of the has-been journalist inspired by an attractive woman to take up the good fight. Both Ted and Erin are likeable and their growing appreciation for each other as the story progresses is well done. The story of Anila and the villagers is interesting and Ferris gives a real sense of life in a place left behind and almost destroyed by the march of so-called progress. We see Anila’s life both from her own perspective and also through the eyes of Ted and Erin, which gives a rounded picture of how different and almost incomprehensible the lives of each are to the other.
Since the heart of the book is in the highly technological banking industry, the action is as likely to involve IT shenanigans as guns (though guns feature too – fear not, my bloodthirsty friends!) and this gives the book a feeling of freshness and originality. Ted’s friend Oscar and his gang of hackers provide some light relief as they don their online personas and ride off to battle in the warzones of the dark net. The plot is not about the who – we know from the beginning who the baddies are. It’s about whether Ted and Erin will be able to bring the baddies down in time to save the People’s Bank – and themselves.
Overall, I feel the book starts a bit slowly but gradually builds up the pace till by the end it races along. The traditional thriller ending is enlivened by the technological element, which Ferris explains well enough for even the least nerdy person to follow. I understand from the bumph on the Amazon page that this is to be the first in a new ‘Only Human’ series from Gordon Ferris, which will be ‘fast paced stories tackling some of today’s global challenges’. I’ll certainly be signing up for the next adventure.