Brad Meltzer, The Millionaires (Warner Books, 2002)
Brad Meltzer is known as a legal thriller writer, but none of his books has a courtroom scene, and really, they have little law in them. Like Meltzer's other books, the Millionaires is a thriller, and while a lawyer (well, a private investigator) is one of its characters, it has no actual law in it. Yet the book shares many of the qualities that make legal thrillers popular and, with its backdrop of corporate crime, technology, and privacy invasions, it raises several interesting, topical issues that will appeal to attorneys or, indeed, to any reader.
Any good thriller needs to make you want to keep turning the pages, and Meltzer is a master at that. The Millionaires's strengths are its suspense levels, its plotting, and the detailed, interesting backdrops against which its fast-paced narrative occurs.
Good Guys Who Do A Bad Thing
As with virtually any legal thriller, or at least virtually any in the genre as developed and defined by John Grisham, the plot centers on a male hero -- or, in this case, two, the twenty-something brothers Oliver and Charlie Caruso. While in the standard thriller the hero is the good guy, here Oliver and Charlie are good guys who take a single step on the wrong side of the law.
Both brothers work at Greene & Greene, a private investment bank so exclusive that it only takes clients with at least $2 million in their accounts. Oliver has been slaving away for several years with the hopes that his mentor, Henry Lapidus, will help him get into business school. Older brother Oliver is a hardworking soul who, we learn, is being manipulated by the white shoe bankers at the firm. The brothers are also under financial pressure because they have staggering hospital bills to pay.
Two Brothers On The Run
It is then that the thriller really takes off. When the brothers hide the three million in an offshore account, it explodes exponentially, becoming three hundred million. Then a colleague of theirs at the bank, an ex-Secret Service man, gets shot before their eyes by the Secret Service because of the missing money. Terrified, the brothers go on the run to escape both the Secret Service and a female private eye, all the while trying to figure out for themselves what is going on, and who is really chasing them.
All thrillers have at their heart a key question: Whom can you trust? Several of Grisham's novels, for instance, test the issue of whether or to what extent a lawyer can trust his firm (a concept that surely resonates with associates.) Meltzer's novels tend to turn the question inward, focusing on whom one can trust within personal relationships.
For example, Meltzer's first novel, The Tenth Justice, asked readers: How much can you really trust your friends? Dead Even asked: How do you know you can trust your spouse? The First Counsel asked a question that very few, if any, of us will ever raise in our lives: How much can you trust the President's daughter?
The Millionaires makes readers wonder who can be trusted at the investment bank, but it also explores the level of trust in a sibling relationship. The brothers' close relationship is at the heart of the book, and at several points in the novel their trust of each other is tested.
Technology and Paranoia
Overlaying the book, and accentuating this feeling of constant unease about whom to trust, are the computer surveillance and security technology that frequently reappear. Meltzer does a deft job of incorporating this technology into the story. Early in the book, we see how Greene & Greene is able to access the computers of all of its employees, and Meltzer describes the high-tech securitized doors and entrances in the bank, as well as the fancy cameras watching one's every move in the elevators and hallways.
In an age when employees sense that their employers are able to access their emails and hard drives, but don't really know to what extent their employers are observing their every digital move, the book's atmosphere of constant surveillance and the unease it creates resonates with our experience.
Also capturing a bit of the zeitgeist is Meltzer's description of the world of corporate crime - which, with its lack of transparency and its hiding of money through layers of middlemen and offshore accounts, evokes Enron in all its splendid wrongdoing. Oliver is a quick hand and Meltzer describes, for instance, how Oliver deposits the three million in layers or "shelves" of offshore accounts.
Security versus Privacy?
At the same time, the story underscores our anxieties post-September 11 about the conflict between security and privacy, focusing on the ease of changing one's identity and government's use of technology to conduct surveillance.
We see how the brothers easily disguise themselves with Clairol hair dye and fake licenses, and get the help of a sleazy attorney they find by looking in the phone book at "the stutterers" under "AAAAA Attorneys" for a lawyer who will help them hide the money.
Meanwhile, the private investigator, a warm-hearted woman nicknamed Joey, is investigating the brothers at the same time that the Secret Service is tracking them. We see the high-tech ways the Secret Service and the P.I. bug the brothers' mother's home -- and the endearing, Luddite way the mother evades their watching eyes "under the glare of four digital videocameras, six voice-activated microphones, two encrypted transmitters, and over fifty thousand dollars' worth of the governement's best military-strength surveillance equipment."
The novel suggests a view of technology as something to be distrusted, even feared, of technology as a weapon wielded by powerful corporations and the government against less powerful employees and citizens.
Debunking Esteemed Institutions
Meltzer deflates two institutions that the public normally holds on a pedestal-- the government and Disney -- by showing the reader fresh, insider perspectives. The book is also cynical about the Secret Service. As usual, for Meltzer the question is one of trust: How much can we trust the government? How far is too far, in terms of the government's surveillance of citizens in order to protect against crime and terrorism?
Meltzer seems to enjoy giving the reader an insider view of an institution we hold in much esteem -- stripping it of its robes, and of much of its glory. Just as he took us behind the scenes in the Supreme Court in The Tenth Justice, he does the same in this book not only with the Secret Service but with the beloved American standby, Disney.
In an exciting passage near the end of the novel, Oliver and Charlie sneak past security and Meltzer takes us behind the cloaks of Disney World -- portraying the tunnels behind the slick operation we are used to seeing, and contrasting the clean, colorful, commercialized Disney we see when we visit the park with the bare, underground bowels of the corporation.
Maybe that's what makes reading thrillers like Meltzer's so appealing. The Millionaires will make you uneasy; you'll want to keep turning the pages to find out what is going on and whom the protagonists can trust. Still, you know that in the end, you will find out who is to be trusted--a reassuring feeling, particularly today when that feeling is hard to come by.