The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Dollars and Sense: Writing Financial Crime Fiction with James Jackson

English: A bag of money, US dollars, spinning ...
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In this article, we are talking about financial crimes in novel writing with author James Jackson. 

Jim, you have a new book out - can you give us the blurb and talk about how you apply your financial background to your fiction?

Jim - 
First, thanks so much for having me here today.

Here's the blurb for Ant Farm:In this thrilling prequel to Bad Policy and Cabin Fever, when thirty-eight retirees meet a gruesome end at a picnic meant to celebrate their achievements, financial crimes consultant Seamus McCree comes in to uncover the evil behind the botulism murders.

But the deadly picnic outside Chillicothe, Ohio, isn't the only treacherous investigation facing Seamus; he also worms his way into a Cincinnati murder investigation when the victim turns out to be a church friend's fiancé.

While police speculate this killing may have been the mistake of a dyslexic hit man, Seamus uncovers disturbing information of financial chicanery, and by doing so, puts his son in danger and places a target on his own back. Can Seamus bring the truth to light, or will those who have already killed to keep their secrets succeed in silencing a threat once more?
James Jackson

I worked as a financial consultant for thirty years. My particular area of expertise included pension plans and post-retirement medical plans for large corporations, not-for-profits and governments.

As an actuary, I determined the annual funding requirements for those plans. As a consultant I dealt with the organization's senior executives to design the most efficient plans for their group.

I have a character flaw (well, one of many): I look at any financial transaction and want to figure out how to game it. Fortunately, a reasonably strong moral compass and a very strong desire to stay out of jail convinced me never to act on any of the schemes I figured out.

But as an author of financial thrillers and suspense tales, I can use that character flaw, combined with my inside knowledge of the financial industries and corporate executive culture to write realistic stories.


Do you worry that people with broken moral compases might be taking notes as they read your work?

Jim - 
I don't. I am not teaching anything new to insiders of the various businesses I have dealt or am dealing with in my novels (insurance companies, insurance brokers, hedge fund managers, for example). Those who are in the position to execute the kinds of fraud I describe already know what they need to know.

If anything, I hope the average reader will learn how vulnerable the systems are and be mindful of their own affairs so they are less likely to be scammed themselves.

Fiona - 
Numbers :sigh: most people I know are math-phobic. Are you writing for a particular audience or have you found a way to make this interesting for all? And as a piggy back to that question - do you have to spend time in your novel explaining financial concepts? If yes how do you do that without acting like warm milk and a Sominex?

Jim - 
One major skill I had as a consultant was the ability to explain complex financial concepts using English that people unfamiliar with the jargon can understand. There is a small segment of the population who reads my books because they too have insider information about the businesses. In fact, I had a former boss comment about Ant Farm that he had had someone who worked for him arrested because they perpetrated one of the frauds outlined in the book!

However, for everyone else, anything that needs to be explained is in very understandable language.

One technique that works well is to have another character ask Seamus McCree (the protagonist) to explain something -- or have them make a guess, which is close and then have Seamus make the correction. Done in dialogue and flows very quickly.

People only need to understand the concepts, not all the specifics.

I have had lots of mathaphobes, whom I personally know, tell me how much they enjoyed learning about these financial instruments, such as annuities, short sales [when you borrow stock, sell it and hope to buy it back later at a lower price].

Fiona - 
What mistakes in books/TV/movies do you frequently see and drives you crazy? How can these be avoided?

Jim - 
The errors I see that just drive me up the wall usually have to do with probability and statistics (major areas of actuarial study).

For example, they will have no understanding of the difference between average and median.

Fiona - 

Jim - 
For example, they will say something like (totally made up on the spot) because the average income in this town is $100,000, poverty isn't a problem. However, there is a rich neighborhood and a poor one. There are 10 rich guys who each earn $10,000,000 bucks and 90 people who earn nothing. The average for the 100 is $100,000. However, if we looked at the median (the number at which half the people would be above and half below) the number is $0.

Jim - 
Very large or very small numbers in a group can skew the average and so that misrepresents the group. Other statistics do a better job and people don't know them.

And now our audience is snoozing -- how to avoid. Check with someone who does understand the stuff.

Fiona -

What advice do you have for people who may not be as familiar as you are with the subject, but woke up in the middle of the night with a plotline running through their head, and it's a financial suspense?

Jim - 
My experience is that experts in any subject are delighted to share their knowledge with authors. Do a bit of research to figure out who you want to talk with and give them a call -- or if possible show up in person.

Fiona -
Can you give us some examples of financial suspense/mystery that you thought were particularly well done and might be used as a template for well written financial mystery - and can you tell us about your other books and what crime you developed in each (if it's not a spoiler).

Jim - 
The biggest mistake I see regular people make is to sign a financial agreement they do not understand. You can be assured that the people who drew up the agreement know exactly how to screw you if you are not aware -- and many will, if they legally can.

That was just an extraneous, not answering your question.

Fiona - 
Thanks for the warning and that sucks.

Jim -

Sue Grafton & Sara Paretsky do excellent jobs with the financial crimes. Kinsey Millhone worked for a while as an insurance fraud investigator and V.I Warshawski has dealt with many white-collar crimes.

Read It Now

Ant Farm and Bad Policy both revolve to some extent upon fraud relating to insurance companies. Cabin Fever also has financial crimes within its core, but saying much more would give away a bit of its plot.

My current WIP, the next in the series, Doubtful Relations, deals with hedge funds -- which have been in the news lately.

Fiona - 
Would you say that lay people who want to have a better conceptualization of some of the issues that we hear about in the news would be edified and entertained at the same time with your books - sort of a gentle tutorial or is that taking things too far and they are really there for great entertainment?

Jim - 
Well, they might be enlightened a bit, or they might be a bit more careful in the future, but really the books are page-turning yarns and any education someone gets is purely a side benefit.

Fiona - 
And very quickly we are out of time. My last question: What do you wish I had asked you, if I had enough knowledge to do so?

Jim - 
I love that question. It is one I always ask experts.
Q: What advice do you have for people when they are dealing with financial professionals?
A: Understand as much as you can about how they are compensated. Even the most honest and ethical individual will be swayed by how they make money.

When I worked for a company that sold insurance the consultants who sold a lot of any particular insurance company's products would earn free trips; the company would earn "production bonuses". Despite being independent more contracts flowed to those companies who sweetened the pot than didn't

That is even more true when all a person's compensation comes from commissions.

Not that everyone is dishonest, but I do believe they will be swayed -- and it isn't for your benefit.

Fiona -
Now for the most important part of interview, please tell us you scar story.

Jim - 
I have three and I’ll be brief. Scar one: As an eight year old, I fell on a cinder driveway. Deep under my skin I carry one small cinder that never came out. It reminds me that our past is always with us.

Scar two dates from grade school: On my left shinbone I have a circular scar caused by a thrown baseball bat. I was pestering a neighborhood kid, and he threw the bat at me. I tried to jump over it but didn’t quite make it. I could see my bone. My memory is not of pain but of realizing that it was stupid to pick on someone with a bigger, badder weapon. I recall that knowledge when someone cuts me off on the road—the jerk might just be carrying a gun.

Scar three: Above my left knee is a chainsaw scar—self-inflicted when I forgot Newton’s law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I was cutting down a small tree and just as it began to fall, my dog trotted into its path. I reached out to slow the tree down with one hand. The hand with the chainsaw swung in toward my legs. I was eight miles from the nearest human; fifteen miles from a phone; twenty-seven miles from the hospital.

Lots of blood but no spurting. Short story: I applied pressure, took myself to the hospital for the necessary stitches, and am still alive.

Fiona -
Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing, Jim!

Fiona Quinn's Newsletter Link, Sign up HERE

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.



  1. Although one of my current manuscripts deals in demons, I can't think of a more immoral crime than the one Jim presents in Ant Farm. BTW, Jim--barb wire makes for nasty scars as does rebar, which I used to stake out gardens. Not anymore since those circular ridges in rebar like to grab hold of skin and not let go.

    I hope Amazon's promotion sells lots of books. Ant Farm was gripping.

    1. EB -- thanks for your comments and best wishes.

      ~ Jim

  2. Those are scary scar stories! I'm about half way through Ant Farm and it's crawling with suspense. I don't know how you do it, Jim, but you write about numbers and don't put me to sleep. BTW, I have a tiny piece of graphite in my forehead from stabbing myself with a pencil. Not an exciting story, just a klutzy one. I'm glad you learned from your scars!

  3. Thanks Kaye. I suspect you are not the only one with graphite (most of us would incorrectly call it lead) from a pencil sticking in you. At least your story is klutz, two out of my three were mostly stupidity!

    ~ Jim