The Wall Street Trap – Black Fridays by Michael Sears

As one of the few authors of mysteries set in the business world, I was eager to read the Edgar-nominated Black Fridays, which is set on Wall Street. Author Michael Sears, himself a former Wall Street trading wunderkind, doesn’t disappoint. While Black Fridays does not wow the readers with its mystery plotting, or in its overall pacing or suspense, its characterization and writing are exceptional.

Sears’s hero, Jason Stafford, is released after a two-year stint in federal prison for running an accounting scam at his securities firm. He arrives back in New York to find that his floozy, boozy ex-wife has absconded to Louisiana, with their five-year-old autistic son, and with most of the couple’s money. The one bright spot in his situation is a job offer, from a large investment firm, which asks Stafford to investigate the  practices of one of its young traders, who was recently killed in a boating accident.

Stafford begins by traveling to Louisiana, and after an intense confrontation, retrieves his son, Jason, Jr., from his ex and her abusive new husband. There begins the exhausting, often painful, and sometimes funny process of father and son getting to know each other, and for the conscientious but ill-equipped Stafford of raising a special-needs child. A further complication–albeit a pleasant one–is provided by a budding romance with a beautiful grad student named Skelly. Meanwhile Stafford, faced with internal opposition and obstruction, and pressured by the FBI, begins to unravel a massive fraudulent trading scheme.

Black Fridays does not feature intricate plotting, ingenious detection, or pulse-pounding suspense. In fact, so much attention is given to Stafford’s role as a parent than at times I wondered if the book was really considered a mystery. Sears more than compensates for the de-emphasis on mystery and suspense with the richness of his character development, which makes us care about his characters, particularly the autistic Jason, Jr. This strength is supplemented by knowing insider stories and tidbits about Wall Street, and by writing that sparkles with wit and creative descriptions, making the book a lot of fun to read.

Having said all this, I was disappointed that Black Fridays ends with Stafford making a questionable moral choice to enrich himself.  We expect the protagonist in a mystery to face tough moral dilemmas, and to have to choose among bad options.  But we also expect him or her to be a character we can root for, and thus to make the right choice, even if it is difficult.  By the end of Black Fridays,  we want to like Stafford despite his criminal past, but the character seems, inexplicably to me, to fall victim to the same easy-money Wall Street mentality that Sears describes so well, and that got Stafford into trouble in the first place.