Lady Killers

Long a genre dominated by men, thrillers are increasingly being written by – and about – women. Novelist Linda Davies reports on four such page-turners.

Many people become squeamish when women conjure evil, as if it might rub off on them. Yet more and more, women are writing thrillers that feature female protagonists: characters who inhabit worlds darkened by serial murder, sadomasochism, and child killing. These writers seek not just to convey violence, but to understand it, to enter the psyche of evil.

I remember my surprise at a review of my first book, Nest of Vipers, that described my heroine as a monster and likened the novel to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in its amorality. My heroine was driven by vengeful passion to take up where the judicial system failed, stepping out of the bedroom, the boardroom even, and onto the bloody streets. Would this have been more palatable in a male character, created by a male writer? An underlying morality justifies her actions, but her lack of conventionality, her readiness to use violence, makes her uncomfortable to some.

Women writing suspense novels is nothing new, of course – think P.D. James and Patricia Highsmith, to name just two – but many recent thrillers seem to speak more directly to a female readership. Women tend to empathise more easily with the evolving protagonists created by female authors, while men raised on more macho thrillers may find these characters strange and unsettling. Herewith, a look at four engaging new books: a sequel to one of last year‘s finest debuts and three works from first time novelists.

Carol O’Connell‘s The Man Who Cast Two Shadows, the follow up to her novel Mallory’s Oracle, once again features the formidable NYPD detective Kathy Mallory. In this beautifully written book, shot through with pain and longing, Mallory investigates the murder of a young woman in Central Park – chillingly the woman is a ringer for Mallory herself – and winds up uncovering police corruption. Mallory is a seductive character who can out-men the men, while still retaining an air of vulnerability. She is both mysterious and as real as a fist in the face, and O’Connell’s insights into her complex personality make this a book to savour.

Central to Laura Reese‘s Topping from Below is M., a sickly mesmerizing antihero who draws a woman into a sadomasochistic relationship. The woman, Franny, dies, bound and mutilated; yet no one is charged with the crime. Franny’s sister, Nora, resolves to prove M.’s guilt, and finds herself following in her sister’s footsteps along a path of sexual discovery. A sense of the characters’ decay lingers in the plot, which is sparked by a dangerous current of eroticism.

Sarah Lovett‘s compelling Dangerous Attachments reveals a world of predators and charred flesh, of ravaged minds and those who try to understand them. The main character, Sylvia Strange, is a strong, at times brittle, psychologist who works with inmates in New Mexico prisons. Among the numerous characters is a slick politician and his son, Lucas, who is in prison for murder and fears that his father is trying to have him killed. Lucas, who is reviewed by Strange, becomes so obsessed with her that he begins to stalk her, psychologically as well as physically. Though the terror comes from perhaps too many angles, Dangerous Attachments has a febrile, edgy quality, evoking at times an elemental fear.

In Liz Rigby’s richly evocative Total Eclipse, an astronomer falls in love with, and tries to defend, a beautiful widow who has been charged with a double murder. The novel, which features some memorable courtroom scenes, deals with themes of perception and distortion; it strongly suggests that in order to see clearly, women – and men – need to adapt, even change, their perspectives. And the conclusion is spectacular.

Rigby’s novel – like each of these books – contains plenty of action, but equally important is the hidden violence in the brain, the traumas that make these characters dangerous, unpredictable, vulnerable. These authors’ fresh approaches heighten the suspense and draw you in as you identify and empathise with the characters. Women move easily in the world of feelings, and they are turning it to their advantage in fiction.

Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar, July 1995

Empowering girls. It’s not what you look like, it’s what you do!

Forging an independent identity is one of the biggest challenges many of our teens will face. It can be tough figuring out who you are, especially if the idealised identity on sale in our cultural bazaars requires a level of apparent perfection that is dispiriting rather than inspiring and relates to a static idea of how you should look, rather than what you can do with your body and mind.

This affects boys and girls, but it is girls who suffer more of a dearth of healthy role models. If we look at music videos, which have a dominant effect in creating an imagery and theme tune of youth, girls are shown either as accessories or else as powerful by virtue of the pulchritude of face and the amount of skin they expose rather than via the power of their minds and bodies.

How can we give our girls better role models and why is it so important that we do?

A strong sense of identity, forged by the individual, not forced upon them by birth, upbringing or circumstance, or adopted by default from social media norms, is vital to our teens’ happiness and well-being. This philosophy does away with concepts of either victimhood or entitlement, both of which are damaging and hindering in forging a happy, successful and useful life. But identity is created and owned by taking action, by developing hobbies and skills, by inhabiting our physical bodies, strengthening and using them rather than primping and preening them.

Katniss Everdeen: an exceptional role model (in every sense)

But where are the inspirations for our girls in literature and film? Katniss Everdeen has done our teens a huge favour by being a strong, powerful role model. She is not anyone’s accessory, draped provocatively in music videos or taking vicarious power from a stronger male. She is a skilled and brave fighter. A leader of a revolution. But she’s still an exception.

I feel very strongly about empowerment for girls, about their health, physical and mental, and how to promote it.

This started with my own journey. A skinny girl with round glasses and long brown plaits, I was called Skinny Linny, Twiggy and Praying Mantis. I wasn’t cool, I wasn’t adorable-looking, and I didn’t fit in.

Skinny Linny was not a good identity. Rebelling against the pigeonhole my peers were trying to cram me into, I decided to forge my own identity, one that would give me strength; I would be Linda, the fighter. I had a powerful ally, my father.

Glyn Davies had fought in the Second World War. He believed that you needed to raise children able to look after themselves, armed with the knowledge and physical abilities to get themselves out of trouble, and to fight if absolutely necessary. So he taught my three older brothers, and he taught me. He made no allowances for the fact that I was female and I shall always thank him for that.

When I was eight he gave me my first longbow. I would shoot for hours till my hands were callused, but I loved the focus and the sense of achievement when I hit the bull’s eye, what archers call the ‘Gold.’

My own history explains my long-term fascination with warrior girls. The seeds for Longbow Girl were sown decades before Katniss stalked our screens, thanks to my unconventional ‘equalitist’ father.

Now I have a twelve year old daughter I feel even more strongly about the need for powerful, positive role models for girls. I always make the heroines in my adult thrillers and now in my books for Young Adults, into fighters. Merry Owen, in Longbow Girl, is a supreme archer and has to become a fighter on many levels. That is her identity and it saves her life as well as the lives and lands of those she loves.

Artemis, the ancient Greek form of Diana, kills Actaeon with her bow

Merry is physically marred from an accident with her longbow, but she is beautiful nonetheless because of her strength, her bearing, her attitude.

I particularly love archery, the skill I gave to Merry, because of the calmness, strength and training needed to wield a bow effectively.

The bow is a simple weapon, about as low tech as weapons get. But is rich in tradition and history. It is associated with power, nature, myth and legend whether it is Diana the Huntress, or the Amazonian warrior queens.

But any sporting activity will work. I love the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. And the truth of it is, the more you do, the more you push yourself, the more you can do in all areas of your life.

My message to girls is this: Forget the dopamine hit from an Instagram like of your bikini’d body. Go for the endorphins surge of a fast run, a weights session, a game of tennis, a session of archery. Pick up your bows and aim for the gold.

And writers and film makers, let’s give our girls heroines worthy of the name.

First published in 2016

What is an El Niño event and why should we care?

The last mega Niño in 1997 had powerful and catastrophic effects on global weather. It caused 22,000 deaths world-wide and cost $33 billion in flood and drought-related damage.

What is El Niño?

Giant tsunami wave approaching shore El Nino

The Christ child they called it, the fishermen of Northern Peru, who noticed around Christmas-time in certain years, a warm counter current flowing from the north, extending far south, lasting for months. We now know it can increase the water temperature by between four and ten degrees Centigrade. This warming of the ocean devastated the fishermen’s livelihood because it drove away the anchovies, and other fish, in search of the colder waters in which they thrive, but it pleased the farmers, some of the time, because it rained in the deserts, allowed them to grow crops in normally barren land. But El Niño’s didn’t always benefit them.

The Moche civilisation was destroyed in the late 6th century when, following thirty years of drought, a prolonged El Niño brought year after year of torrential rains that washed away their crops and buildings and eventually eroded their entire civilisation. They tried everything they could to placate the weather Gods. Hundreds of fractured skeletons were found pertaining to that period. Human sacrifices thrown desperately from cliffs.

El Niño has a lot of blood on his hands. We have attributed China’s Great Famine of 1877-8 to an El Niño event. Between nine and thirteen million people perished and seventy million were severely affected. It is a global phenomenon. At its peak, the warm pool of water can extend as far as one third of the way around the globe and cover an area one and a half times the size of the United States. It can bring rain where there is normally drought, and drought where there is normally rain.

How often does it happen?

On average every four years, a strong one every fifteen years. What we call a ‘mega-Niño’, like the one that destroyed the Moche, occurs every 400 years. But it’s not regular. A decade can go by with no Niño event, and then you could have four in as many years. Then there’s also something called La Niña, the pendulum swing that sometimes occurs after a Niño event, which brings cooler waters, and its own brand of devastation. La Niña in 1988 caused the northward displacement of the north pacific jet stream, which in turn displaced storm tracks into Canada, effectively stealing the storms that bring the USA much of its rainfall. By July of that year, 43% of contiguous USA was suffering from severe or extreme drought. It was like the years of the Great Dust Bowl. Grain growers lost more than 19 billion dollars and the world’s grain reserves were halved.’

What effect is global warming having on El Niño events?

El Niño events are getting more ferocious. In the twentieth century, El Niño’s have been stronger than for the past 130,000 years. The last Mega-Niño occurred in 1997. It caused 22,000 deaths world-wide and cost $33 billion in flood and drought-related damage. No-one predicted it with any decent lead-time, nor did they predict how long it would stay, or how severe the consequences would be.

Who feels it first?

Peruvian fishermen on the north coast where Peru borders Ecuador are some of the first people to physically feel a Niño event. The seas warm, I’ve swum in them myself. They are so intoxicatingly warm, where they are normally quite cool and fresh, that all the local children pile in for hours and have to be dragged out at meal times. For the children, it’s very simple; the Nino has arrived, and they make the most of it before the rains come, as they will in a matter of weeks, a few months at the most.

What actually happens to the seas when an El Niño comes?

In a typical year, in spring, you get strong winds blowing towards the equator, and these, plus something called the Coriolis effect – the tendency of winds and currents to veer to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern normally – join forces to push surface waters away from the coast. To fill their place, cold water rises in what’s called an upwelling, bringing a whole host of nutrients to the surface which attract fish. Big ones and little ones. But, during El Niño events, there is a relaxation of the winds, and you get things called Kelvin waves bringing warm water eastwards from the Western Pacific. That causes a downwelling of warm water to depths of three hundred feet or more, stopping the nutrients rising to the surface. During the 1997-1998 El Niño, tens of thousands of seals and sea lions starved to death as a result.

There was also widespread flooding of low lying coastal homes because when water warms it expands and the sea level rises. And the Kelvin waves can raise sea levels on the Peruvian Ecuadorian coast by as much as ten inches.

Ark Storm eco-terrorism thriller by Linda Davies author of Nest of Vipers

Discover more about Linda’s eco-thriller inspired by catastrophic weather events like El Niño: Ark Storm

Into The Fire financial spy thriller by Linda Davies set in Peru

Discover more about Linda’s spy thriller inspired by her own time living in Peru: Into The Fire

Ark Storm letter to The Mail on Sunday

As I write this, California is suffering a life changing drought. Here’s a letter I wrote which The Mail on Sunday published last week.

While it may amuse us that Cameron Diaz is not flushing the loo as regularly as she used to in order to conserve water in drought-stricken California, those wishing for rain need to be aware of the other end of the extreme weather spectrum. In researching my novel Ark Storm, I found that once every two hundred years a catastrophic storm hits California, and they are currently due one.

Last time it rained for 45 days, bankrupting the state. And storms of this magnitude are projected to become more frequent and more intense as a result of global warming. We can only hope that the rain, when it does come, will be the result of a small Ark Storm, not the terrifying ARk Storm 1000 which is due.

Linda Davies, Suffolk
Cameron Diaz – environmental activist

Scientist fears CIA is attempting to weaponise the weather

What if you could control the weather? It’s a question that has exercised mankind for millennia. Now evidence has emerged that the US Intelligence community is funding climate research in what a leading climate scientist fears is a step towards controlling and weaponizing weather.

Professor Alan Robock, a climate scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has revealed in a recent conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San José how three years ago he received a telephone call from two men who claimed to be working for the CIA. Apparently they said: “We are working for the CIA and would like to know if some other country was controlling our climate would we be able to detect it?”

Robock said he was scared by the call, revealing that he thought that the CIA operatives were also wondering, “If we wanted to control someone else’s climate could they detect it?”

Further evidence of the CIA’s interest in climate emerged last week when the National Academy of Sciences published a report on tacking climate change. One volume of the report concentrated on ways to manipulate clouds or the earth’s surface to reflect more sunlight out to space and the other targeted means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The CIA was one of the major funders of the report which led Professor Robock to wonder what exactly is the Agency’s interest?

The CIA did not respond when asked to comment.

The Agency set up the Center for Climate Change and National Security in 2009. It was closed down in 2012 but evidently the CIA’s interest in climate continues. It raises the question – was this office truly closed down or has it just gone underground? Has it become just one more deniable op?

When it did operate, the Center drew heavy criticism from Republicans who regarded it as a distraction from the clearer and more present dangers posed by terrorism. Which begs the question, what if weather manipulation could be used as an act of terrorism?

That is the premise of my novel Ark Storm, in which I describe how a real life scientific innovation that can make it rain is used to stage a terrorist attack on the West Coast of the United States of America.

I stumbled on the science behind Ark Storm when I was living in Dubai. It was the summer of 2010. I read that dramatically heavy rains were falling in the deserts of neighbouring El Ain in the United Arab Emirates causing unprecedented floods. In that region, the historical average number of rainfall events for June through September is two. The National Weather Service forecast zero rain events over that period. But it did rain. On fifty two separate occasions. And it hailed and galed and thundered. It made the international news.

Rainstorms cause flooding in the UAE, 2010

When I investigated further, I heard rumours of masts in the desert, of scientists and computer models. It sounded like something out of a James Bond movie. And then I read an article which explained what had been going on.

It was the work of scientists. Technicians were mounting ionizers on masts, producing electrons which attached to dust particles in the atmosphere. These dust particles rose by convection till they reached the right height for cloud formation where they attracted water molecules floating in the air which then started to condense around them. Billions of droplets of rain formed and fell…

So far, so Bondian. Then I heard about the latest twist where the ionizers are sent up on drones… Which made me think of terrorists…

This technology is a game changer, capable of bringing rain to areas of drought, to making once marginal farmland richly productive. All that’s needed is a minimum humidity level of thirty per cent, the ionizers correctly programmed to emit just the right quantity of short-living ions over the appropriate time period and circulation pattern to charge the natural aerosol particles and masts or drones to get the ionizers into the correct positions.

It is worth tens of billions of dollars; it is something that people would kill for, nations would go to war for. Is it any wonder that intelligence agencies such as the CIA are interested…

The technology works by tapping into what is known as the pipelines of water in the sky. The largest of these pipelines are known as atmospheric rivers. We have only been aware of the existence of these rivers for around five or six years due to advances in satellite imaging technology. Most people looking up on a clear day would never think that just a few miles above their heads a huge ribbon of moist air hundreds of kilometers wide and over two thousand long could be coursing through the atmosphere at speeds in excess of 12.5 meters a second.

Small atmospheric river storms hit around the world every year. But every so often, a monster emerges. In California they are preparing for the next one. A team of 117 scientists, engineers, public policy and insurance experts under the umbrella of the Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project worked for two years to create the hypothetical scenario of what such a storm could be and what damage it would wreak across the state of California. In an ARk Storm 1000 scenario, this river, described by the head of the ARk Storm Unit as “like Forty Mississippis,” races from the tropics toward the west coast of the US, then hits, and keeps on hitting. The Storm Door opens and fails to close. This is a storm so intense it has been described as “like Hurricane Katrina pushed through a keyhole.”

The scenario goes like this; winds of up to 125 km’s per hour, rain falling in feet rather than inches, nine million homes flooded, parts of LA under twenty foot of water, one and a half million residents evacuated, four weeks of solid rain, an area three hundred miles long and twenty miles wide under water, innumerable mud slides, multiple casualties, a trillion dollars worth of damage. A meteorological nightmare and a catastrophe for the state of California.

Last time something like this hit was 1861 to 1862. Witnesses describe a flying wall of water that swept people and livestock to their deaths. California’s Central Valley was turned into an inland sea for months. Such a storm would be more devastating than the Shake Out Earthquake and its probability of hitting is about the same. Both are expected imminently in geological terms. ARk Storm 1000 is arguably overdue.

I thought what if the ionization technology were to fall into the wrong hands… What if somebody decided to use it to ramp up an ordinary atmospheric river storm into the ARk Storm 1000? That is fiction. The technology is fact.

It is the realisation of an ancient fantasy. We have mapped the surface territories of the earth, we are valiantly progressing in our attempts to plumb the deep, we are making inroads into space. We have seeded clouds with some local, limited success. But despite efforts across the millennia, mankind has been unable to control the weather. Until now. As a result of the ionization technology, we can in a limited but very powerful and dramatic way, manipulate the weather.

Now man with all his hubris in the best traditions of a Greek tragedy can attempt to play God. And who will pay the price? The rich and powerful in some morality tale, or the poor and the weak in the all-too-familiar play of Realpolitik…?

Greed and ‘Women Beware Women’

By Linda Davies

Programme note for the 2010 revival of Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton at the National Theatre, London, directed by Marianne Elliott

“Three great forces rule the world; stupidity fear and greed.” Einstein could have been describing the murky urges underlying Middleton’s play nearly four hundred years ago, and equally the forces that still appear to rule the world today.

In Women Beware Women, greed was a contagion. Now it’s an epidemic, as most recently and dramatically demonstrated by the bankers and their monstrous credit crunch, aided and abetted by the greed and stupidity of those who purported to govern and regulate them. But why is greed so timeless? Perhaps Gordon Gekko, in the movie Wall Street, best expresses the evolutionary imperative of greed:

Gekko sanctifies greed.

In Women Beware Women, greed is stronger than love.

At the outset, Bianca is passionately, seemingly selflessly in love with Leantio. For him, she has “forsook friends, fortunes…” yet she declares: “There is nothing that can be wanting to her that does enjoy all her desires… I am as rich as virtue can be poor.” Presaging Thoreau:

That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.

Henry David Thoreau

Yet Leantio, neither believing nor trusting his good fortune in ensnaring his ‘choice treasure’, his ‘jewel’, knows that “temptation is a devil will not stick to fasten upon a saint.” Like many a businessman away on a business trip, he worries: “What assurance of restraint then?” He is reassured by his mother’s presence. “Old mothers know the world… when sons lock chests are good to look to keys.”

He still worries about the corrupting influence of greed and cautions his mother: “I pray you do not teach her to rebel… to rise with other women in commotion against their husbands for six gowns a year.”

Of course, if you are a WAG, hooked up to a championship footballer, then six gowns or six ‘must-have’ handbags are part of the trade; endless handbags and fashions for her, but possibly endless liaisons for him, with the girl of his best friend, or just any attractive woman lured into his orbit.

Even if you didn’t go into it with the idea of such a trade, there is the ever-present risk of the corrupting power of wealth and position.

The Duke uses both to seduce Bianca. He offers her “wealth, honour… She that is fortunate in a Duke’s favour lights on a tree that bears all women’s wishes… why weep away whole years in wants… come, play the wise wench and provide for ever.” He believes his wealth and position will prevail, and why wouldn’t he? They did, just as Tiger Woods’ did. They gave him access and justification:

I convinced myself that normal rules did not apply. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them.

Tiger Woods

But why the compulsion to acquire? Why acquire another ‘must-have’ handbag, or another conquest, or another company, a jet, and then a larger jet? Shopping produces for many consumers a ‘high’. We are goaded by the ancient caveman promptings where acquisition meant survival. We are provisioning in the aisles of Tesco’s or the boutiques of Bond Street. We acquire, we survive. And we spread our seed as far and wide as we can to ensure propagation of the species. The old brain, the hypothalamus, tweaks our strings and we dance.

But why should greed still be so keenly felt in an era of plenty amongst those who surely have enough?

“It’s not a question of enough,” explains Gekko. “It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses.”

It’s a kind of sport, as beloved now by the ambitious Livia who orchestrates Bianca’s seduction. In plotting with her the equally manipulative Guardiano observes: “T’would prove too much worth in wealth and favour to those should work [The Duke’s] peace.” Livia is delighted to play the role of a female Pandarus.

Why? Because it is fun, as well as potentially rewarding in terms of wealth and power. Bianca’s mother-in-law, thinking she is just commenting on Livia’s skill at chess, observes: “You are cunning at the game.”

Livia responds: “It will be found so… she that can place her man well.”

How like some corporate or political players, scheming and manipulating behind the scenes. Livia succeeds because of Bianca’s own susceptibility to greed.

And of course, today as in Middleton’s play, you can also attempt to draw upon the majesty of the law to “hide your acts from sin-piercing eyes.” In Women Beware Women, Hippolito and Isabella attempt to use the sanctity of her impending marriage to the Ward to hide their own love. Today you can try, but possibly fail, as did John Terry, to take out an injunction to prevent the press from revealing your sins.

But the most majestic means of veiling acts from scrutiny was devised by the bankers and facilitated by their political masters, too busy enjoying the lavish tax takes to look too closely at exactly what the bankers were doing.

Bernie Madoff, Nick Leeson, Allen Sandford and the long list of financial fraudsters were able to profit because of the pervasiveness of greed. Investors’ heads were turned by attractive and seemingly relentless year on year returns. Some were duped and relied on advisers whose own scrutiny was dulled by the prospect of fees. Bank chairmen were too busy thrilling to their enormous profits to scrutinise the fraudsters’ trading too closely. Had they never heard the expression ‘too good to be true’?

Politicians too looked the other way. The City of London in its finest hour was contributing 27% of the UK’s tax take. So the politicians were disinclined to interfere. Why mess with the Golden Goose? Untrammeled, the bankers played on.

It wasn’t just the fraudsters who benefited. The ‘ordinary bankers’ did too. Securitisation was their tool of choice. What better way to veil “your acts from sin-piercing eyes,” than to shunt your excess liabilities off balance sheet through some clever derivative instrument. Intoxicated from decades of gambling with what’s known in the trade as Opium – OPM, Other People’s Money – it was so easy for them to succumb to greed, to make that trade and not worry about the risk when it was other people’s money they were risking.

Add to that the hubris inherent in their belief that they had conquered the future. Myron Scholes and his Black Scholes model meant the uber-bankers thought they knew the future. They could quantify it, risk assess it, price in the risk premium. They could hedge themselves. And where the marble and glass-palace players led, so the High Street followed.

Personal borrowing rocketed to fund that ‘must-have’ bag, or the extension to the house, or the bigger house acquired on a 110% mortgage.

The bankers thought they had conquered risk, captured the future, could deal with whatever vagaries it threw at them.

Trading with OPM and further distancing themselves from the repercussions via securitisation made it Other People’s Problem. A world without consequences removed the brake of self-interest from greed. But then came the Black Swan event – high-impact, hard to predict, rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations. The global financial system teetered. Governments across the globe propped it up to the tune of £4,473 billion of taxpayers’ money, according to the Bank of England.

And so in Women Beware Women, the unexpected brings the players down; the wrong person drinks from the poisoned goblet. The master-manipulator is outmanoeuvred and loses all.

The unexpected happens, chaos intervenes, and like the bodies littering Middleton’s stage, the corpses of the financial victims litter the world stage.

Nothing’s changed.

The stage just got bigger.

If Fiction comes true… Careful what you write

Written for The Aularian, The St Edmund Hall, Oxford alumni magazine, Spring 2009

Linda Davies

I am familiar with the oft-quoted Confucian proverb: be careful what you wish for, the Gods might just grant it, but I had never thought that I would be able to amend it into a stricture of my own: be careful what you write. In my case, the Gods, the Fates, or perhaps a malevolent Djinn, did actually transpose me into the pages of my first novel for children – Sea Djinn.

When I left St Edmund Hall (PPE) I became an investment banker, a career I safely followed for seven years before escaping to write financial thrillers.

This I did happily for twelve years, penning five which were published around the world. These were not without their own attendant dangers. The Chief Executive of one City bank debated long and hard whether or not he should sue me, before deciding (rather sensibly, I thought) that he would prefer not to stand up in court and say that I had based a corrupt, murderous Chief Executive in one of my novels on him. Then there were the unwelcome attentions of a famously intrepid narco pilot who used to fly coca basica from the Huallaga Valley in Peru to the processing factories in Colombia. His stories were fascinating, and they made for research of the highest order, but when he confessed after many hours’ conversation that I understood him better than his wife I thought it was time to leave his jungle stronghold, that I had more than enough background detail for my novel Into the Fire.

After having had three children, I decided that I had done enough dangerous research. I had long wanted to write for children, and when we moved to Dubai four years ago, I found inspiration in the djinn which feature so strongly in the folklore of the region.

I began to craft Sea Djinn. The plot came to me as I strolled along the beach which is five minutes from our house. A young boy, Finn, would walk that same beach. One evening in the gloaming, he would meet the Sea Djinn of the Light who would reveal to him that his parents had been kidnapped at sea by Hydrus, the Dark Sea Djinn. Together with his cousin, Georgina, and his friend Fred, Finn would steal a boat and set sail for the Dark Kingdom to do battle with Hydrus and free his parents.

With one hundred pages written, my husband and I were kidnapped at sea by the Iranian navy. We were held hostage for two weeks. Fortunately my own children did not have to steal a boat and set sail to any Dark Kingdom to release me and their father. That blessed magic was performed by the UK Government.

I completed Sea Djinn, re-writing the kidnap and captivity themes with considerably greater authority and insight. It was not, however, a form of research I would care to repeat.

So, was our kidnap coincidence, mere bad luck, or had I written a part of my own destiny, invoked it, perhaps seen it delivered by a malevolent Djinn, of whom, many Emiratis firmly believe, there are many bedevilling this sandy and beguiling region?

A poem written in captivity:

Trapped in a prison of smiling faces,
Wearing a veil to hide my own,
Answering scores of repeated questions,
When will they let me go home?

Pouring with muck sweat under my burka,
My hopes depend on them,
Left alone for a million minutes,
Time stretches without end

Promises, promises roll from their lips,
But nothing is ever delivered.
Inshallah, say the smiling faces
But I think he’s looking away

A birthday cake for a nightmare birthday
A puff and the candles are blown,
Oh please sign the papers in triplicate
And let me go back to my home.

Discover more about Linda’s memoir of her real-life hostage experience: Kidnapped

Kidnapped: A true Story, Linda Davies' memoir of her experience as a hostage of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Discover Linda’s celebrated children’s series set in Dubai: The Djinn Quartet

The Djinn Quartet by Linda Davies: Sea Djinn, Fire Djinn, Storm Djinn and King of the Djinn, children's magical fantasy set in Dubai

Fraud: A Class Act

By Linda Davies

Programme note for the 2006 revival of The Voysey Inheritance by Harley Granville Barker at the National Theatre, London, directed by Peter Gill

“If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel.” Trollope’s voluptuous description of fraud reveals the elegant ease with which the middle and upper classes have historically stolen their money. All that has changed is that greater social mobility into the financial sector has democratised fraud, slightly, in recent decades.

They mug so elegantly, the financially literate. They have no need of the glinting knife or the raised fist. A champagne glass raised in a salute to greed at the dinners of the great and good or in a braying wine bar is a far more powerful weapon for them. And where is the harm? And to whom done? There is no bloodied corpse. The victims of fraud are very often not known or identifiable to the perpetrators, and the impact of the fraud often not felt for years after the commission of the crime. Sometimes the impact is never felt at all.

Insider trading was described as “generally a victimless crime” by none other than Sir Martin Jacomb, then Deputy Chairman of the Securities and Investments Board, a City regulatory body. Fraud is a kind of crime lite, with minimal impact on the conscience, minimal effort, little risk of detection, but with spectacular returns.

Jabez Spencer Balfour

That is why fraud has always been endemic to the financial system. Take one corpulent, bullying former MP who lived in splendour for many years whilst swindling the life savings of thousands of employees. That was Robert Maxwell in the Nineties, but he was only mirroring the antics a century on, of another high-living self-aggrandizing, over-sized MP – Jabez Spencer Balfour. In 1872, Balfour set up a building society, The Liberator, to look after the savings of working men and women. Within ten years it was one of the UK’s largest financial institutions affording Balfour an opulent lifestyle. Evry year, while completing the annual accounts, Balfour calculated how much money he and his cronies needed to maintain their gilded lifestyles, liberated it from the accounts and inflated the turnover figure to disguise his fraud. He was a man of power, position and great wealth, a former MP, and his position afforded him a certain immunity from scrutiny, so he was able to perpetuate the fraud until The Liberator collapsed, leaving thousands of savers destitute and bound for the poorhouse. Why did he do this? Because he could.

Most financial fraud is either opportunistic, or ‘need’ driven. I’m not sure that Robert Maxwell, who bilked the pension funds of his companies of £440 million, set out to do so. What is more likely is that he thought he might just dip into them for the necessary cash to trade his way out of trouble. If he could just leverage the next acquisition, finesse the next deal. And then stop. But what many fraudsters find is once they have been ‘blooded’ in this way, it becomes hard to stop. The fraud continues, becomes more audacious. The longer it continues undetected, the greater becomes the fraudster’s sense of invulnerability, and his daring. Perhaps the fraudster even develops a taste for the illicit. Speculation is, after all, gambling. Fraud adds the risk of discovery and a certain amount of disgrace to the gamble. How much greater is the high when the swindle is pulled off? So addictive is the process that in many cases discovery or suicide is the only way out.

In The Voysey Inheritance, Mr Voysey defends his fraudulent practices by saying to his son, Edward: “I have done what I had to do.” His fraud was originally ‘need’ driven. He had to attempt to trade his way out of his own father’s frauds, but it appears that once he had successfully done that he could not stop.

He was addicted, aided in his fraud by the swindler’s common self-deceit that a crime has not really been committed. “I have had to go beyond the letter of the law,” he tells Edward. The law has not been broken, just stretched. It is elastic, accomodating, and conveniently, the arena it legislates is huge, opaque, riven with legitimate sharp practice such as traders lying to conceal their positions, so it is wonderfully difficult to know how to apply the law and hence when one might or might not actually be breaking it.

Fraud has always been and will remain spectacularly easy. It just took a few pencil strokes to enable Harold Jaggard to liberate £7 million from Grays Building Society which collapsed in 1978. The original accounts were kept in pencil, making it sublimely easy for Jaggard, the Chief Executive, to rub out figures and write in new ones. After forty years of fraud, the proceeds of which Jaggard spent on women and horses, an auditor finally spotted something suspicious and Jaggard committed suicide. Like Maxwell after him, he found the fall from grace and the loss of position unendurable.

All that Ivan Boesky, a legendary arbitrageur from the 1980s, needed to commit his crime was information that the rest of the market was not given. A whisper here, a whisper there, passed on for a fee from from corporate insiders. What is the crime in that? It certainly doesn’t feel like a crime. It’s just conversation, after all, albeit sufficiently profitable to allow him to pay a fine of $100 million when he was caught. For his crime he also served two years in prison. A trade worth making, many people would say, especially given that most insider traders get away with it most of the time because it is a notoriously difficult crime to prove if committed with a modicum of subtlety.

A convenient moral justification regularly dredged up is that greed is good, and further, everyone’s at it so why shouldn’t I be? As if the prevalence of an act changes its legal status. “Business nowadays is run on the lines of a confidence trick,” says Mr Voysey. “Greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself,” says Mr Boesky.

This gives a kind of Darwinian justification to sharp practice, a macho validation of it which Mr Voysey shared. “You must either be the master of money or its servant,” he tells Edward. The entrepreneurs and financial sophisticates of the nineteenth century, like the corporate raiders and arbitrageurs of the late twentieth, approached the bending and breaking of the law with a testosterone-rich muscularity.

Thomas, Lord Cochrane

In 1814, Thomas, Lord Cochrane, naval hero and radical Member of Parliament staged an elaborate hoax involving thundering news carriages and uniformed horsemen trumpeting the (false) news that Napoleon had been slain by the Cossacks. The UK stock market rose enabling Cochrane to offload securities that he had purchased the week before in readiness for his scam. Cochrane was a prominent anti-corruption campaigner, yet he found fraud irresistible. Similarly, in 1887, Harry Marks, founding editor of the Financial News, a rigorously fraud-busting publication, used his position as Editor to puff up the fortunes of a gold company, the Rae-Transvaal, that had just been floated and in which he was heavily invested. He quoted its shares at a false premium in the paper and recommended it no less than 33 times in three months. He sold out before it went into liquidation in 1888, leaving shareholders with nothing.

Periods of rapid expansion such as in the commercial sectors during the nineteenth century, or of liberalisation such as in the 1980s are often accompanied by a contagion of fraud. Greed triumphs over scepticism and the prevailing commercial morality is challenged by new practices and becomes similarly liberalised.

A common trait amongst fraudsters is their apparent respectability. Members of Parliament; football clubs. Mr Voysey himself insisted that, “I must, at any cost inspire confidence.” So he justified his own opulent lifestyle, funded by fraud. The fruits of fraud – wealth, position, respect, provide a certain insulation against its detection, as well as the ability to buy off its detector.

What a wonderful crime where the spoils offer their own protection.

Surely the lawmakers can do something? They have tried, but the creativity of the fraudulent and the sheer enormity of their incentives will always be greater than that of the lawmakers. Constructing fences is much duller than leaping over them. The financial classes will keep leaping, as they always have done.

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