TOMAS BYRNE had a high-powered job in investment banking but gave it all up to write a thriller exposing globalised wealth plundering. He tells Paul Simon why
TOMAS BYRNE used to work at the very heart of modern globalised capitalism. But he left his lucrative position in investment finance to embark on the equally risky, but less destructive, task of establishing himself as a novelist.
The result is his recently published first book Skin in the Game, warmly received in the pages of the Morning Star as “a very superior thriller and an anti-capitalist one at that.”
Yet Byrne demurs when asked if he would now describe himself as a Marxist, though he admits to “a lot of sympathy for the theory.”
His book’s title refers to the practice of investment companies who, by sharing some of the risk and putting up a percentage of the capital itself, demonstrate serious backing for a new funding venture.
The only real risk-takers are of course ordinary, powerless citizens.
Thus Byrne’s novel explores the complex mutualised web of interests that allows privatised armies, global investment houses, conniving Western governments and terror groups to profit from the misery of the exploited.
Byrne can certainly draw on first-hand experience when it comes to such an exposé.
He started off as a tax lawyer in Canada, got recruited by a law firm in the City of London and ended up in investment banking, where he was able to draw on his knowledge of how tax laws operate in different countries.
The career move from “gamekeeper to poacher,” though, was driven by job dissatisfaction. “I got to a level in banking where I was finding it quite unrewarding, just moving money around,” he explains.
“The fallout of the financial system as whole was a convenient reason to get out. I wanted to actually use my mind for things I wanted to think about, rather than making other people money.”
Although listing thriller supremo Robert Ludlum as one of his influences, Byrne’s literary reference points span far and wide and take in both Thomas Mann and Joseph Conrad.
As a result, Skin in the Game is an effective mix of fast-paced plotting and the painful unpicking of the interior life of protagonist Joe Hawkins, a retired terrorism expert who has got in the way of the big players.
Byrne was also keen to subvert the genre’s normal conventions. “I wanted to structure the book in a way that was not simply chronological and so wrote parallel chapters that pointed towards the same climax with one ending in a tragedy and the other showing there’s some light above,” he says.
“Joe’s experience in the story is also quite bizarre for a genre that usually deals in paper-thin reality and reflects my interest in a person who has gone insane in a world that’s gone insane, hence his non-rational but literary thought process.”
There’s a sense in the book that its Islamist characters are motivated more by a sense of the greater good as opposed to their own narrow financial gain but Byrne is at pains to point out that he has no sympathy for terrorism of any kind.
“A lot of it is reactionary rather than First Cause,” he says.
“Frequently it reflects an imperative to adjust to the current macroeconomic and political imbalances in the world, a response to the millions of the disenfranchised globally.”
“But I was trying to show them having a moral centre, certainly when compared to the financial and political types who have only one thing on their minds and that is self-interest and self-gain.”
It is in his portrayal of Cadan Blake, the head of the investment bank at the centre of the book’s conspiracy and his acolytes, that Byrne certainly indulges himself in some point-scoring.
“The violent killings are clearly metaphorical but the ethos and attitude of these people are quite accurate.
“I was the manager of a slew of younger recruits and noticed many of them had an extremely right-wing attitude to life in general and in competing against the person beside them.”
He also drew on Andrew Feinstein’s The Shadow World, an up-to-date analysis of corruption in the arms trade and its relationship with natural resource exploitation.
Married to his banking experience, it helped Byrne devise a realistic plot in showing how big business monetises resources to sell weapons to Third World countries, to the detriment of healthcare and education programmes.
The military-industrial complex is very resilient and is still alive and kicking, Byrne stresses. With the financial crisis, Western governments have had tighter budgets to spend on military equipment, “so the global players need to find other buyers for their highly sophisticated weapon systems.
“Just look at Israel. It has used US money to invest in Iron Dome, one of the greatest technical military achievements of recent years.
“And, when you have weapons systems, their capability needs to be proved and so you find a reason to use them.”
He cites Ukraine and the “ distasteful” Western exaggeration of “the Russian threat” as an excuse for Nato to rearm.
“Who benefits from seeing subs in the Baltic off Sweden when the government then decides to take money out of welfare to spend on defence?” he asks.
Byrne is already sketching out his next novel, which is likely to see the return of Joe Hawkins in a story set within the political and economic realities of climate change.
From the moral Arctic of investment banking to writing about global warming, Byrne has come a long way personally.
But, even more significantly, he’s reshaping the thriller genre for the better.
Skin in the Game is published by Cameron Publicity & Marketing at £12.99.