Staff Pick – 419 by Will Ferguson

2012 Giller prize winning 419 (M) is a departure for the usually funny Will Ferguson (M), author of Generica, How to Be a Canadian, even if you already are one, and Beauty Tips from Moosejaw just to name a few.

  419 is an atmospheric brooding thriller set around 2002 which explores the apparently thin line between greed and heroics, and victim and culprit.

419 is section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraudulent activity and scams. Anyone with an email account has received a plea on behalf of a wealthy Nigerian who will give you a portion of his fortune, if only you will receive the money into your bank account. Thankfully, most will delete this email, but what happens when, for reasons of greed or altruism, the email recipient responds? 419 begins with an emotional blast when the family of a retired Calgary teacher learn that he has been killed in a car accident. Investigators quickly determine that this is a suicide and that he has been duped by Nigerian fraudsters and has lost everything – savings, home, everything.

Henry Curtis had been approached via email by Nigerian scammer Winston and tricked into believing that a vulnerable young girl was in trouble and her only hope was to have her fortune transferred out of Nigeria, enabling her to leave the country. The 419 scam follows a progression beginning with a personalized and eloquent appeal. The victim’s curiosity/greed/generosity is piqued and contact is made. Official and legal-looking, though entirely meaningless documents are exchanged before roadblocks appear which can only be circumvented with more money. Eventually the victim has invested so much money that they can’t afford to back out, and if they do the communication becomes aggressive, blaming and threatening the victim. Henry’s daughter, Laura, seemingly reserved and timid, refuses to accept that nothing can be done about this crime.

419 is not just about the victims of this scam. It takes the reader as well to Nigeria to follow other storylines that will eventually intersect at the end. There is Winston, the already mentioned scammer, an educated city man who makes this scam into something of an art form. Nnamdi, a boy born in a fishing village which is being ruined by oil companies, whose father asks the key question, “Would a parent die for his child?” Amina, a pregnant and solitary young girl – the ultimate portrait of vulnerability, and finally Ironsi-Egobia, the criminal mastermind who is controlling them all. The scammers do not see themselves as criminals, they justify their acts by their belief that they are merely taking back what has been stolen from them.

While not necessarily an easy read, 419 has a very exciting and rewarding conclusion. The novel can be uncomfortable as it is easy to see how a vulnerable person might be taken in by such as scam. It is a crime whose target may lose general sympathy as there is always the promise of a cash reward, even if their motives are altruistic. 419 is a challenging novel and is an interesting combination of literary fiction and suspense thriller. Fans of Patricia Highsmith (M), Elmore Leonard (M), and Ian McEwan (M) may enjoy.

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