Writing about financial crime

Last night I joined the Mesdames of Mayhem at a meeting of the University Women’s Club of Mississauga. This particular branch we visited keeps a keen eye on international affairs and the Mesdames talked to them about about mystery writers around the world whose stories focus on a plethora of social issues: racism, immigration, chemical warfare, child abuse, sex trafficking, organized crime and terrorism.

I spoke on financial corruption.

I started my Pat Tierney novels when I was a journalist writing about finance. I was interviewing financial planners and investment managers, and attending their conferences. I understood the issues they faced. There was – still is and always will be – a lot of concern bad apples in the financial services industry: corrupt advisors and money managers. Because the industry industry revolves around money, it provides an opportunity for people who are clever and greedy enough to challenge the system.

I was horrified when I heard about Bernie Madoff, the New York money manage who swindled his clients out of $65 billion in a massive Ponzi scam. And we had scumbags of our own in Canada, such as Patrick Kinlin, a charming—and most of them are very charming—Bay Street financial advisor who operated a classic “confidence scam.” He’d get close to seniors, dazzle them and their families with his interest and concern. Then he’d sell them bogus stocks and bonds, and drain their bank accounts.

I worried that the people who were managing my money might be up to the same tricks. (And just a few days ago, the CBC reported on illegal investment fees that DIY [online] investors are being charged. No-frills investors should not be paying trailer fees because they don’t receive financial advice.)

All this resonated with me. And when you’re starting a novel that can take anywhere from three to 10 years to complete, you need a topic that resonates, that keeps you motivated. So I decided that my central character would be a financial planner, and before long the character of Pat Tierney took shape in my mind. She has the traits of the people I admire most in the financial services industry, people who want to see tougher penalties for fraudsters and maintain that the system is currently too soft on offenders. Pat is a champion of small investors. She has sleepless nights when stock markets are down. She hates to see ordinary people, people who’ve worked hard to pay off their mortgages and build up retirement nest-eggs, get ripped off.

And I started writing in the financial thriller sub-genre. Which I had never heard of back then. But I soon discovered a whole group of authors who were writing about financial crime. Readers around the world can relate to their stories because they have to do with money. We all need it but some people will do anything to get more of it. Rob banks, skim money from  clients’ investment accounts. Steal identities in order to write cheques and take out mortgages and credit cards in those people’s names. Some people will even murder for money.

And big financial crimes can have big repercussions: flash stock market crashes, and veteran financial institutions disappearing almost overnight.

One of my favorite financial thriller writers is Michael Sears, a former Wall Street bond trader. I met Michael in 2013 when we were both on a panel titled Easy Money at Bouchercon, the big international mystery conference that was held in Albany, N.Y. that year.

Michael’s series features protagonist, Jason Stafford, who was once a Wall Street bond trader, but made some very bad moves and landed in jail. After two-years in federal prison, Jason is prohibited from taking work that involves handling money—which is a basic requirement for any job on Wall Street. But due to his financial crime expertise, one firm wants him to quietly look into irregularities in the books of one of their junior traders. A guy whose body was just pulled from the Long Island Sound. Soon Jason is facing threats, and more people are dying.

This is from the opening of the first Jason Stafford mystery, Black Fridays:

I was the first alumnus from my MBA class to make managing director. I was also the first to go to prison.

Two years. For an accounting shuffle! Ridiculous. You pay a fine and you move on. But the Feds wanted my scalp. Well,  it was a half-billion-dollar accounting shuffle, which had come close to bringing down a major investment bank. The stock had plummeted. Investors were outraged. The president’s mother-in-law had lost close to $10,000. The Feds needed someone to put in the stocks, and get pelted with stones. I was their man.



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On the trail of Henry Joy

A few years ago, I discovered that I shared my surname with an 18th century Irish rebel. I don’t know if we’re related (unlikely, I think, but you never know), but I was determined to learn more about Henry Joy McCracken and his activist sister Mary Ann on our trip to Ireland this month. Here’s what I found:

Henry was the fifth of seven children born to of prominent Presbyterian Belfast family in 1767. It wasn’t a great time to be Roman Catholic or  Presbyterian in Ireland. Presbyterians were treated far better than Catholics, but they were required to tithe the Anglican Church of Ireland and were prohibited from holding government office or military commissions. It certainly helped that Henry’s family was well-to-do. His father was a shipowner and his mother’s family, the Joys, made their money in the textile industry and founded the Belfast News Letter.

Joy’s Entry lane in the centre of Belfast.

Henry grew up in the McCracken family home in Rosemary Lane and, from an early age, developed a love of traditional Irish culture. He helped organize the Belfast Harp Festival, and helped preserve Irish folk music by having songs and ballads set down in musical notation. But he was raised to work in the family’s textile businesses, and by the age of 22, he was running a cotton factory.

Henry cared about the welfare of his workers. Many were Catholics and were prohibited from attending school, so Henry and Mary Ann opened a “Sunday school” where workers learned to read and write. The McCrackens’ school was closed by the Anglican vicar of Belfast who regarded it as potentially subversive.

Henry was more interested in the arts and social reform than the family firm, which may have been why the Joy, Holmes and McCracken cotton mill went out of business. Henry was particularly attracted to the idea of Irish independence. He was a founding member of the Society of the United Irishmen, which started out seeking  parliamentary reform  in certain areas, such as the vote for all Irish men (but not women), and evolved into espousing complete separation from England and the founding of an independent Irish Republic. Henry’s job was bringing the Defenders, a secret Catholic agrarian society, into the United Irish movement, and he used his business travel around the country as a cover for this work.

His political activities alarmed the authorities. He was arrested in October 1796 and imprisoned in Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail for 13 months. Released on bail in December 1797, he returned to Belfast and was elected the United Irishmen’s general for Antrim. He came up with a plan to mount simultaneous uprisings in different parts of the country and led a July 7, 1798, attack on the town of Antrim. His band of rebels was defeated by the British, and Henry and his men headed for the Antrim hills.

Mary Ann set out looking for her brother, and arranged for him to be hidden. She obtained a forged passport for him and organized an escape to the United States. He was recognized as he boarded the ship, arrested, brought to Belfast for trial and sentenced to a traitor’s death. He could have saved his neck by implicating others but he refused to turn against his comrades.

Henry was hanged on July 17 at Belfast’s Cornmarket, on land that his great-great grandfather had donated to the city. Mary Ann arranged to have a doctor present to resuscitate her brother but the hangman did his job well. Henry was dead at the age of 30.

Bust of Mary Ann McCracken in Belfast City Hall.

Mary Ann was a remarkable woman in her own right. Two years younger than Henry, she never married but she raised Henry’s illegitimate daughter, Maria Bodel. Mary Ann worked tirelessly for women and children’s rights, including the plight of child chimney sweeps.  She campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the United States and, in her 80s, she could be found passing out anti-slavery leaflets on the Belfast docks to those boarding U.S.-bound ships, claiming that America was not so much “the land of the brave” as “the land of the slave.”

She died at the age of 96.

I like what I’ve learned about Henry and Mary Ann. I wouldn’t mind claiming them as family.


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Moving Target gets a facelift!

Today Moving Target gets a new look with a brand new banner designed by Sara Carrick. After six-plus years, it’s about time I gave the blog a facelift.

The new banner — at the top of this page — displays the covers of my three Pat Tierney mysteries, Safe Harbor, Black Water and Raven Lake. Note  Safe Harbor‘s fabulous new cover, also designed by Sara Carrick:

“Progress is impossible without change” — George Bernard Shaw.

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“Black Bear Country” in Mystery Weekly magazine!

The heat and humidity of the past few days have me looking forward to our lakeside retreat in Haliburton at the end of July.

But a vacation in the Canadian wilderness can hold unexpected surprises, as Henry and Ellie discover in “Black Bear Country.” My story is included in the July 2018 issue of Mystery Weekly magazine, along with good reads by Caroline Misner, Jim Doherty, Leslie Elman, Peter DiChellis and Lance Dean.

Paperpacks and digital copies available at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.


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Kingston on my mind!

Kingston, Ontario, will always have a special place in my heart. I spent a year at teachers’ college at Queen’s University after finishing my bachelor’s degree in Montreal. The move to Kingston meant I had finally left my parents’ home. I was living on my own and loving it!

This past Friday, Ed and I headed east on the 401. About 50 kilometres before Kingston, east-bound traffic came to a stop. There had been a major accident on the road ahead of us, and we spent the next two-and-a-half hours wondering what had happened and worrying whether our bladders would hold out until we reached a service station. The traffic finally picked up and vehicles were allowed to exit at the town of Odessa. It was only later in the day that we learned that there had been a major accident with two fatalities on the road ahead of us.

Kingston Penitentiary’s front entrance.

After the washroom, our destination was the Kingston Penitentiary. The former maximum security prison was opened in 1835 and it closed in September 2013. And tours of the buildings and grounds are now given from May to October. I’d passed this fortress every day when I was at teachers’ college. I wanted to see what it was like inside!

Our young guide took us to various stations in the prison — cell blocks, the guardhouse under the main dome, the recreation yard, work areas — where former prison guards told us stories of what went on in these areas when they worked there. All the former  guards we met had worked in the prison for 30+ years and seemed to have enjoyed their work. I hadn’t realized that there had been a four-day riot, resulting in the death of two inmates and the destruction of much of the prison, only a few months before I arrived at teachers’ college. It’s a wonder my parents had allowed me to leave home!

Above: Ed in his cell in Kingston Pen.

Behind bars at Kingston Pen.

Over the years, Kingston Penitentiary has housed many notable and notorious inmates. James Donnelly, patriarch of the Black Donnellys, spent seven years in the Pen after his sentence to be hanged for the murder of Patrick Farrell was reduced to a jail term. Others of note are the infamous serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo; serial killer Clifford Olson; Russell Williams, former commander of CFB Trenton, who was convicted of killing two women in 2010 near the military base; and Grace Marks, the Irish-Canadian maid who was convicted of murdering her employer and whose story inspired Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace. Wayne Boden, the Canadian “vampire rapist” (so called because he liked to bite his victims, which led to his conviction), died in Kingston Penitentiary in 2006.

Right across King Street from Kingston Pen in the former Warden’s residence is Canada’s Penitentiary Museum. It houses a fascinating collection of inmates’ ingenuity, such as shivs made from toothbrushes, a stack of dinner trays that was used in an attempted escape, and prisoners’ artwork.

At the Sisters in Crime table in the book room, from left to right: Madona Skaff, Terri Dixon and Marilyn Kay.

On Saturday and Sunday, Ed and I got down to the main purpose of our visit to Kingston: Limestone Genre Expo, the annual conference of the sci fi, fantasy, horror, romance and mystery genres. It was a chance to catch up with our mystery writer pals, and to learn more about other literary genres. I spoke on a panel on Why Do We Love a Good Whodunit?, read from my mystery novel Raven Lake, and hung out a lot in the book room.

Ed and I attended a terrific two-hour panel titled Genre 101 for Genre Writers to learn more about the conventions of horror and sci fi writing. A top project for the summer is to read some classic horror stories so I can learn what has been done before and how it works in the hands of the masters. I’m also keen to read The Physics of the Impossible to find out what theoretical physicist Michio Kaku thinks may be possible in the near and distant future. I’m not a scientist so I need a good explainer.

In the photo above, Katherine Prairie (left) and Lisa de Nikolits are hard at work selling their books.

Author Madeleine Harris-Callway

Photos by Ed Piwowarczyk.

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An Arthur Ellis for 13 Claws!

Last night, Catherine Astolfo’s “The Outlier” was named the winner of Crime Writers of Canada’s 2018 Arthur Ellis award for best short story.

“The Outlier” appeared in the Mesdames of Mayhem’s crime fiction anthology 13 Claws, published by Carrick Publishing last fall. It is Astolfo’s second Arthur Ellis for best short story. She won the award in 2012 for “What Kelly Did,” published by NorthWord Literary Magazine. That year, she also won the CWC’s Derrick Murdoch Award for her service to Canadian crime writers.

Congratulations, Cathy and Carrick Publishing!

Click here for a complete list of 2018 Arthur Ellis winners in all categories.

The Arthur, presented to winners of Crime Writers of Canada’s annual awards.

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Limestone Genre Expo!


Huge book event! Workshops, panels, readings and … books, books, books!

This weekend! Saturday May 26 and Sunday May 27.

Holiday Inn Waterfront, Kingston, Ontario.

Check out the schedule here.


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