Blown is a short and engrossing mystery novel that also stands as a morality play, an ethical fable that suggests that our own selves may be the greatest mystery of all.
Blown by Mark Haskell Smith. Black Cat/Grove Atlantic. 223 pp. $16.
By Thomas Filbin
“It’s harder to tread water with a spear jutting out of your shoulder than you might think,” writes author Mark Haskell Smith, describing the shellshocked state of mind of an embezzling banker, Bryan LeBlanc, who is at that moment floating in the waters of the Caribbean, having escaped from various persons trying to recover the money or steal it for themselves.
There’s plenty of entertaining relish for detail in this fast-paced crime novel about theft and skullduggery. But along the way you begin to realize that this is more than a whodunnit. Blown is also a narrative about moral values and their repudiation. Absconding with a large sum of money is just the book’s hook. It goes onto pose some elemental questions. For example, would an ordinary individual commit a murder if it meant he or she could enrich themselves — and never be caught?
Bryan Leblanc works in a large investment bank. Over time, he comes to hate both the organization and the money hungry people he works with and for: greedy creatures for whom the word “enough” does not exist. Not content to be merely wealthy, they desire something more: “They wanted privilege and access – the access to more money and the privilege to take it for themselves. That’s why they sat in front of their computer monitors, bleary eyed and amped up on a cocktail of Adderall or Ritalin…and left it all on the field and gave 200 percent and strove to dominate from above.”
Half out of vanity, half out of contempt, he hatches a scheme to embezzle 17 million dollars, moving it through various currencies and banks, in and out of fake accounts, then landing the cash in the Cayman Islands. There minimal laws and regulations, as well as bribing a suitable accomplice at a local bank, will enable its conversion to lots of dollars. After Bryan disappears from his New York office — and the money is detected to be missing — his boss, Seo-yun Kim, follows hot on his trail, along with the bank’s internal fraud investigator, Neal Nathanson. Seo-yun has her own problems; her fiancé is planning their wedding but she sleeps around with others. (She does not answer his various texts and calls about the invitations or the colors of napkins.) Neal, on the other hand, is recovering from a breakup with his boyfriend.
These two characters find temporary respite in the Caribbean while they try to locate Bryan and the cash without notifying the law. (Banks don’t like embezzlement cases publicized. Seo-yun and Neal would prefer to recover the money without even charging their target with a crime.) Bryan, in fact, has taken this fear of bad PR into account. He figures that his odds of getting away with the loot are good. Even if he is caught, the worse thing that would happen is that he would have to give the money back. Bryan enlists Piet, a shady ex-cop from Curacao, to help out and this move inspires a new web of intrigue. The guy is a bon vivant as well as a volcano of sexual desire; despite being four-foot seven Piet has magical powers when it comes to attracting women. Seo-yun is drawn to him at first glance, and this heat-seeking missile of a lothario follows through.
When Bryan arrives on Grand Cayman, shortly before his pursuers, he connects with his co-conspirator, Leighton, who had set up a bank account for Bryan under the name of Cuffy Ebanks. He also has a British passport and credit card for ‘Ebanks,’ as well as a rented condominium on the island. Bryan soon realizes, however, that Leighton and another man are following him and intend to rip him off. When he pays a late-night visit to Leighton’s house, planning to offer him a bigger bribe, the misadventure turns deadly. Without Bryan’s intending it to happen, Leighton is dead. Now he realizes that he may be implicated in murder as well as embezzlement. He buys a boat to leave for some other island, his duffel bags filled with cash.
There follow some elaborate but convincing plot twists, with the tables turning continually. Refreshingly, the winners and losers are not always whom you would expect. The action scenes arrive unexpectedly, and the creative manner in which people threaten or cajole others into confessing bits of inconvenient information is sophisticated rather than thuggish.
The emotional states of the characters and their motivations and anxieties are well drawn and neither heroes or villains are cardboard figures. They are recognizable human beings, albeit riddled with moral and personality defects. Seo-yun is an ambitious Asian woman who has risen to the top through will power and rigid work habits. Once in the Caribbean, she starts to question her life choices; she realizes that marriage is only one more item on the checklist of success. Neal is more vulnerable than he lets on, and Bryan, the son of a school teacher indifferent to money, wonders why he has chosen a path so contrary to his father’s. No one is exactly as they appear to be at first; the addictive additives of money, sex, and danger continually heighten the stakes of the game.
Blown is engrossing; this is a page turner in the best sense of the term. Mark Haskell Smith, who has written novels, non-fiction books, and screenplays and teaches at University of California, Riverside, has done an admirable job of creating a short mystery novel that is not only populated by a half-dozen memorable figures, but stands as a morality play. This funny ethical fable suggests that our own selves may be the greatest mystery of all.
Thomas Filbin reviews books for newspapers, literary magazines, and academic journals.