Michael Sears' debut novel, Black Fridays, is a mystery/thriller set against a backdrop of Wall Street high finance. Unemployed former stock trader Jason Stafford, released from prison after a two-year incarceration for fiscal misconduct, receives a job offer that sounds like a piece of cake: review the trading records of a broker who recently died in a sailing accident. No one expects him to find anything amiss, but the company is coming under scrutiny ahead of a merger and the CEO wants to make sure everything's in order. What could possibly go wrong? Stafford of course gets more than he bargained for as he discovers the squeaky-clean trader did indeed have something to hide and the sailing "accident" starts to appear not so accidental. At the same time, Stafford is attempting to put his personal life back together, dealing with his dysfunctional ex-wife Angie and trying to connect with an autistic son he refers to as the Kid.
These two major plotlines intertwine throughout the novel but can almost be viewed as two separate stories; there's very little overlap between the two. Even the main character seems like a different person when he's on the job versus dealing with his son. He's a rather unlikable, self-centered jerk when in the roles of stockbroker and private investigator, but as a father comes across as loving, caring and self-sacrificing. Needless to say, I found the latter character - and related storyline - more appealing.
In fact, the mystery isn't particularly strong and takes quite a while to really get rolling; I was nearly two-thirds of the way through before I felt engaged in that part of the story. Once the action does kick in, the novel becomes a page-turner, and although there aren't any real shockers or major plot twists the story still holds the attention well. Most readers will find the conclusion satisfactory, if somewhat predictable.
I doubt the book would be a standout if it were based on the mystery alone. What makes it exceptional is the author's portrayal of Stafford's relationship with the Kid. I found this aspect of the book much more entertaining and interesting than the mystery. Stafford's ability to adjust to and accommodate this difficult child seemed a tad easier than it would likely be in real life, but overall Sears's portrayal of the relationship - particularly his description of the challenges the parent of an autistic child might face - come across as exceptionally authentic. There's a particularly horrific scene when the pair take their first airplane flight together that will make any parent cringe.
In the very best relationships, each member helps the other become a better person, and I felt that the main character's realization of what his son adds to his life was perhaps the highlight of the book. Stafford tells a friend:
I'm different without my son. I didn't know that. Now I do. I need him. Loving him makes me a better person. Or at least I'm a much worse person without him; When I brought him up here a few weeks ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I figured I was going to be a hero and save him from a life locked in the attic. But a part of me wanted to hurt Angie, too. I wanted to hurt a lot of people - But I'm learning something from him. Something about starting again. I know I'm better for him right now than his mother or his grandmother or anyone else in the world and it's right that he should be here with me. Even if he barely acknowledges my existence. Because I also know he's right for me as well.
It's Stafford's growth, developing maturity and blossoming bond with the Kid that really captivate and make Black Fridays a worthwhile read.
The author is a former Wall Street trader himself, and displays an insider's knowledge of various forms of financial wheeling and dealing. He does a very good job of explaining the ins and outs of the trading sleight-of-hand that takes place throughout the book. Most of the time the concepts are clear enough for the neophyte to understand, but sometimes the narrative does drift into the overly arcane. Fortunately it's not necessary to fully understand the financial nitty-gritty to enjoy the mystery.
Sears could very well do for Wall Street traders what John Grisham did for lawyers: create a thriller sub-genre featuring a group of people one doesn't normally associate with murder and mayhem. Black Fridays is an entertaining first effort, and I look forward to reading the next entry in what will evidently be a series. Mystery fans will want to keep this author on their radars.
Next In Series: Mortal Bonds (Oct 2013)
This review was originally published in November 2012, and has been updated for the September 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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