Katherine A. Powers
A Fatal Debtby John Gapper
Ben Cowper, an attending psychiatrist at the prestigious New York–Episcopal Hospital, is stunned to learn the/b>/i>
This timely debut thriller by an award-winning Financial Times columnist is a gripping tale of lethal intrigue set in the high-stakes Wall Street world—where wealth and privilege are no match for jealousy and betrayal.
Ben Cowper, an attending psychiatrist at the prestigious New York–Episcopal Hospital, is stunned to learn the identity of the emergency patient he’s just been assigned to treat: Harry Shapiro, a Wall Street colossus and one of Episcopal’s most prominent donors. But a high-profile reversal of fortune has left the once powerful investment banker jobless, bitter, and possibly desperate—judging by the handgun his wife finds him clutching. In Ben’s expert opinion, Shapiro is a suicide waiting to happen. But when the headstrong financier balks at an extended stay in the hospital psych ward, Ben reluctantly releases him, bowing to political pressure from Episcopal’s chief administrator, who’s more concerned with the patient’s money than his mind.
Days later, the shocking news breaks: There’s been a shooting death in Harry Shapiro’s Hamptons mansion. But even more shocking is the identity of the victim. A tragedy sets in motion an explosive chain of events that turns Ben Cowper’s life upside-down.
As hard-nosed cops close in with harder questions, the hospital closes ranks to protect its own interests. But with colleagues freezing Ben out, innocent circumstances conspire to incriminate him. Hounded by a DA who’s out for blood, and haunted by the specter of a shattered career, Ben has no choice: He must delve into the hearts and minds of the people who know Harry best, uncover the secrets they’d rather die—or kill—to keep, and expose the truth behind a web of malice disguised as madness.
Katherine A. Powers
Advance praise for A Fatal Debt
“Is John Gapper a journalist with a novelist’s heart, or a novelist with a journalist’s instinct? Either way, he tells a great story.”—Lee Child, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Reacher series
“John Gapper puts together an irresistible package: A psychiatrist pursuing a Wall Street murder mystery, while fighting for his reputation and maybe his life. This is a neatly crafted and well-written thriller, which shows why Gapper is a must-read columnist in the Financial Times. An audacious, assured debut.”—David Ignatius, columnist for The Washington Post and author of Bloodmoney
“Rarely does one read a first novel so self-assured, sharp, and compelling. A Fatal Debt offers a terrific premise and wonderful characters. It takes off like a rocket and doesn’t stop until its explosive conclusion.”—Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author of Buried Secrets and Vanished
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Read an Excerpt
1 New York City has a light of its own, a dazzling glare that is utterly unlike the soft, cloud-strewn summers where I grew up. I once found its intensity disturbing, like the city’s, but I miss it now. It was glowing on that May morning as I stepped from my apartment building. Sun shone on the budding leaves in Gramercy Park and illuminated the Art Deco gargoyles of the Chrysler Building in the distance along Lexington Avenue.
My gym was nearby, a box with windows on one corner of Irving Place, filled day and night with New Yorkers pounding on long lines of running machines. Some watched monitors and wore earpieces, cords dangling from their ears and swinging in time with the rhythm of their runs. It was a Sunday at the end of a surreal, stressful week—one filled with fraught events that I hoped had been resolved. I walked slowly, trying to relax, letting those events filter into my subconscious.
Two men were playing chess on the sidewalk as I passed. They were both slim and scraggy with thinning hair, and one had a trimmed white beard. As they played, they kvetched about the state of the city, the rise in subway fares, and gentrification on the Bowery. The one playing black prodded a knight forward at the white king, and as he released the piece, the other swooped his queen across and seized a rook with two fingers. The clack of the white queen’s base being slammed on the board echoed across the street.
“Ach,” Black tutted to himself.
“You didn’t see that?” White cried.
The first ten minutes on the treadmill when I reached the gym were painful—my muscles creaked, my throat burned. At about the fifteen-minute mark, the urge to stop was succeeded by a state of boredom, and my thoughts drifted. I always felt this moment, before I started the countdown to the end, when the experience became soothing. As that small but pleasurable window opened, I glanced over the monitor tuned to Fox News on a nearby machine.
Then I jabbed at the red “Stop” button.
The screen revealed a live feed from a news helicopter—the image of a police chase or maybe a crime in progress. The camera shuddered as it circled, but the scene was clear enough: Harry Shapiro’s house in East Hampton. There was the lawn by the dunes, the blue pool, the squares and circles of the cedar-shingled roof, the chairs on which we had sat. The seats were vacant and no one was in sight—only house, lawn, dune, beach, and black-and-white vehicles jamming the drive. His Range Rover was parked by the house, apart from the melee.
“You using this machine, man?” someone asked me from my left. Without noticing, I had climbed off my own and drifted toward the screen.
“No,” I said. “Go ahead.” Other channels were showing the same image, but I tuned to Fox, with its red banner at the bottom of the screen: Death in the Hamptons. The news anchors, when I put on the headphones hanging on the machine, were talking excitedly but not making much sense, as if in the grip of mania.
“We’re going to Bruce Bradley,” said a woman’s voice, “who is at the scene. Bruce, what can you tell us?”
The shot cut to a man with a blue blazer and a bland face, standing at the entrance to the lane where Harry lived and looking professionally grave. In the distance I could see the low, misty outline of Harry’s guesthouse.
“Melissa, I’m in East Hampton, the Long Island beach town known as a retreat of the wealthy,” he said sonorously. “Detectives were called to a house down this lane last night, where they found a body, I’m told.”
The woman anchor started to ask something, but a man’s voice cut over her. “Bruce, this is Jack. Can you tell us the identity of the victim?”
“The police are not saying, but my sources tell me that the deceased is a banker who was well known on Wall Street.”
“Jesus,” I said—loudly, because of the headphones. A woman on a machine nearby looked over at me reprovingly. “Sorry,” I said, holding up one hand. It was shaking from the rush of fear as I put it on the handrail.
For weeks afterward, that anxious feeling of the world breaking up around me was never far away; even now, whenever I’m in New York, a quick glimpse of Fox News can make my heart rattle. It was more than the threat to my livelihood: it was a sense of being wrenched from the frame I had around me, the detachment I had built from other people with all their disordered emotions. Love. Jealousy. Despair.
After pulling off the headphones, I stepped down from the machine and started to walk back to the changing rooms. Near the door to the workout room, I was hit by a wave of dizziness and sat down to place my head between my knees. I didn’t need to watch any more: I already knew what had happened. Harry Shapiro had killed himself. I also knew, with absolute certainty, that I was to blame.
When Rebecca was on duty, she would sometimes return home in the early hours and sit silently in the kitchen before coming to bed. I’d know then that a patient had died on the operating table. We shrinks don’t lose many patients, so we never get used to it in the way that a surgeon must. Patients of mine had killed themselves before, but, unhappy as it made me, I’d never believed it was my fault. They’d been in a chronic condition, had been battling their death wish for a long time, and I’d done all that I could to help.
Harry was different. I’d known he was in danger, and I’d let him die. I’d allowed myself to be bullied and bribed into failing him.
My head was still between my knees, but saliva had stopped running in my mouth and I could feel the dizziness starting to ease. I raised my head to see a gym trainer looking at me with concern, thinking that I must have overdone it on the machines. I grimaced at him as if he were correct, got up, and grabbed a towel. Then I went to the showers and stood under one for a long time.
Meet the Author
John Gapper is chief business columnist and an associate editor of the Financial Times, based in New York. He also has a blog on which he comments on business news. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Exeter College, Oxford University, and won a Harkness Fellowship to study at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of All That Glitters, a book about the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995, and How to Be a Rogue Trader. A former New Yorker, he lives in London with his wife and two daughters.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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The crash of the Wall Street Market ushered in a new era of consciousness of the wrongdoings of those running the U.S. financial system. Fatal flaws came to light, and the American people demanded retribution for the misuse of their money. When the government, in an attempt to hinder a looming economic depression, bailed out large financial institutions, the lives of millions of Americans were instantly changed. There was a large focus on the impact of these events on lower and middle-class citizens, but in "A Fatal Debt", debut author John Gapper creates an imaginative thriller, focusing on a CEO who also saw a drastic change of life after the financial crash. Harry Shapiro had it all. A high profile position as owner and president of a top financial institution at the heart of Wall Street provided him with the luxurious lifestyle most people can only dream of. Unfortunately, the combination of one sour deal, in this case the purchase of a smaller, struggling company, and the market crash left a lasting mark on Shapiro's life. After a public hearing finds Shapiro at fault for the collapse of his company, the once confident financier is left jobless and depressed. This is how Ben Cowper, a young psychiatrist at New York's Episcopal Hospital finds Shapiro. When Harry's wife discovers her husband in his study, clutching a handgun, she immediately brings him to the hospital. After a short assessment of the man, Ben believes that Shapiro is suicidal and that he should be kept in the hospital for further evaluation. But Harry will have no part of this diagnosis. At the encouragement of the hospital, which received generous donations from the Shapiro family, Ben decides to release Harry from the psych ward and to treat Harry at his home. After a chat with Harry, Ben feels that he is making some progress. Shapiro seems content with his situation, and willing to work with Ben. A few days later, Ben is shocked to learn of a fatal shooting in the Shapiro's mansion. With the profile of Shapiro's psychiatric condition suddenly raised, Ben finds himself inside a murder investigation that could lead loss of his job, medical license, and even his life. Gapper has created an edge of your seat thriller that grabs you from the very beginning. Drawing on the events surrounding the market crash, he introduces fascinating characters into the high-stakes world of Wall Street. Despite losing a bit of urgency in the last third of the story, the opening events are strong enough to propel the reader through the rest of the book. A mixture of murder investigation, legal thriller, and medical drama, "A Fatal Debt" is a fast paced novel that should not be missed.
In A Fatal Debt, Gapper unwinds an excellent mystery. He expertly paints the looming background of the US 2008 debt crisis. While the details are vivid and factual, the characters are well-conceived. Ben Cowper, a psychiatrist, is a particularly sympathetic protagonist. As a reader and writer, I appreciate Gapper's page-turning style. As a finance professional, I appreciate the nuggets of financial expertise that nonetheless don't get in the way of a "can-you-believe-it?" good story.
A Fatal Debt has a certain charm to it, as does Ben Cowper, the psychiatrist at the heart of the novel. For me though, the plot was awkward and did not really hold up in the end. 3.5 stars would suit this review best, but my generosity of spirit makes me give it four. There's not a character in the book I would invite home with me, so it was hard to root for anyone in the story. (Charm is not enough!)