Bet Your Life

Bet Your Life

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by Richard Dooling

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A terminally ill man sells his life insurance policy for cheap to an investor who will collect the full amount when the sick man dies.But is the sick man really sick? Does he even exist? In the age of AIDS and no-holds-barred capitalism, the business of betting on how much longer sick people will live is thriving. Is this new market in which life insurance policies

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A terminally ill man sells his life insurance policy for cheap to an investor who will collect the full amount when the sick man dies.But is the sick man really sick? Does he even exist? In the age of AIDS and no-holds-barred capitalism, the business of betting on how much longer sick people will live is thriving. Is this new market in which life insurance policies are bought and sold a legitimate enterprise, or is it an open invitation to fraud and murder?

Carver Hartnett, Miranda Pryor, and Leonard Stillmach all work for Reliable Allied Trust, in Omaha, where they investigate insurance fraud. Carver -- the narrator of this edgy and surprising novel -- is frustrated. His company would rather raise premiums than prosecute insurance criminals. Miranda, his seductive coworker, leads him on and then puts him off -- she seems to have something monstrous to hide. When their friend, crazy Lenny, a computer gamer and an expert with drug-and-alcohol cocktails, dies in the middle of playing Delta-Strike online, a strange and disturbing narrative unfolds around a possible murder and massive insurance fraud. Carver is drawn deeper into various hearts of darkness, and in his efforts to discover the truth behind his friend's death, he ends up betting his own life.

Filled with memorable characterizations -- Carver's boss, the shrewd Old Man Norton; Dagmar Helveg, Norton's fascist assistant; regional investigator Charlie Becker, a plain-talking, commonsense cop -- Bet Your Life conducts a stealthy philosophical investigation of its own, in which our hero ends up investigating the mysteries of his soul.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Throughout his career, Dooling has written socially relevant satires that take aim at corrupt professional institutions; here he targets the insurance industry. Carver Hartnett, the protagonist, works at Reliable Allied Trust in Omaha, where, along with his colleagues Miranda Pryor (a seductive tease with a deceptively innocent past) and Lenny Stillmach (a brilliant burnout with substance-abuse issues), he investigates insurance fraud. When Lenny turns up dead after a particularly strenuous session of an online shoot-'em-up game, Carver enlists Miranda to help solve the mystery, and soon believes that she may be involved. The labyrinthine plot, pitched in tone midway between John Grisham and Carl Hiassen, ostensibly focusses on viatical benefits, in which the policies of the terminally ill are bought by a company at a cut rate, thus allowing the dying to live out their final days with ample cash. There are plenty of detours, too, into Internet chat rooms, medical ethics, and drug culture, and the result is like the fraudulent insurance files Carver investigates: messy but fascinating.
Publishers Weekly
Dooling, who was an NBA finalist for his White Man's Grave a few years back, never writes the same kind of book twice, and this time he's produced a sort of techno-noir thriller set within the confines of the insurance business. The reader learns a great deal about insurance scams and the cynicism pervading the industry, and the Omaha setting is piquant for its contrast with the high-living, trendy insurance investigators who are the book's stars, but the book's virtues end there. The plot is extraordinarily convoluted, with villains both expected and unexpected popping up every few pages, and neither Carver Hartnett, the narrator; his alcoholic, pill-popping buddy, Leonard Stillmach, whose mysterious death precipitates the action; nor beautiful but apparently unattainable Miranda Pryor are either appealing or believable. Carver, for instance, plays teenage blow-'em-away computer games with Leonard, Miranda downs gallons of vintage wine while fending off Carver's advances and all are given to sudden pseudo-profound pronouncements. One scene, in which Carver goes after Miranda while spouting chunks of the Abraham and Isaac story from the Bible, only to have her reply in kind, is an over-the-top classic of weirdness. There are nice touches-a low-profile local homicide detective sneering at the high-tech FBI, for instance-but for the most part the book is a stylistically perplexing mess. (Nov.) Forecast: A blurb from Stephen King may induce readers to give Dooling's latest a chance, but word of mouth won't do the book any favors. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"In my line of work, we call it the f-word. Not the familiar obscenity but a close cousin and mercenary variant called fraud." Narrator Carver Harnett's job is to investigate insurance scams for Reliable Allied Trust in Omaha, NE, but it's a thankless task because "fraud runs through the insurance business like waste through a treatment plant," and the company would rather raise premiums on their honest customers than prosecute the fraudulent. When a fellow investigator is fired and later dies mysteriously, Carver discovers that deception and trickery run close to home. Why did the late Lenny Stillmach buy and then sell several life insurance policies worth a half million dollars to Heartland Viatical, a company he was supposed to be investigating? Did Lenny really have AIDS, as he claimed on the insurance applications, or was he involved in some huge con game? And what was his relationship with Miranda Pryor, a sexy co-worker for whom Carver feels unrequited lust? In his third novel, National Book Award finalist Dooling (White Man's Grave) tackles the murky world of viatical insurance ("where investors bet on how fast AIDS victims die") with mixed results. The premise is intriguing and the writing stylish, but the characters are mostly caricatures, and after a while the narrative becomes repetitive, tedious, and at times unbelievable. For larger collections.-Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Surprisingly hip insurance-fraud investigators wage war against unscrupulous buyers of policies owned by the soon (occasionally too-soon) to die. The field of battle in Dooling’s latest (after Brain Storm, 1998, etc.) is Omaha, where insurance companies guard their stupendous holdings against attacks by fake dead people, professional accident victims, and myriad tricksters with their endless versions of calamity. Carver Hartnett, Miranda Pryor, and Lenny Stillnacht comprise the staunch antifraud core at Reliable Allied Trust. They may look like garden-variety technoslackers, and it’s true they ingest ungodly amounts of easily abused substances, but their hearts are pure and they’re sincerely devoted to whacking away at the con artists besetting all great insurance companies. Alas, as they uncover bunk in claim after claim, they sense a shift in corporate strategy as company overlords elect to pay out bogus claims and recoup costs through spiraling premiums rather than through elaborate investigations and the courts. And now Lenny has been fired for his politically incorrect recommendation to blow off 20 claims for 20 identically named Nigerians, even though Nigeria is the world capital of fraud. Within 24 hours, Lenny is found dead, his blood swimming in drugs--and HIV. As it turns out, HIV is the common element in a slew of dicey claims filed by or for Heartland, a purchaser of viaticals, the rather creepy arrangements by which investors, in the dread days before protease inhibitors, purchased life insurance policies from AIDS victims who needed cash in this world rather than the next. Carver, who has lusted for Miranda through bottle after bottle of the splendid wines that are herindulgence, is sure that thoroughly heterosexual Lenny’s death is its own case of fraud. But on whose part? Lenny’s? Heartland’s? Miranda’s? Reliable Allied Trust’s? Complications--and investigations--ensue. Mostly fun--and agreeably tense now and then--but a bit overwritten, as if crime novels need literary bolstering to be respectable.
Stephen King
“Richard Dooling is one of the finest novelists now working in America.”
Daily News
“Enough plot turns to keep your head spinning.”
Entertainment Weekly
“If you’re not hooked, you’re one dead mackerel.”
New York Times Book Review
“Richard Dooling is a maverick talent … It’s Vonnegut by Grisham - and it’s more … shocking and emotionally right.”
“Vastly entertaining … tight and fast paced … a definite winner.”
New York Times
“An unusually seductive mystery story.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Bet Your Life

Chapter One The Smell Test

In my line of work, we call it the f-word. Not the too familiar obscenity but a close cousin and mercenary variant called fraud. I work in the Special Investigations Unit of Reliable Allied Trust, where I investigate insurance fraud. Truth be told, we don't do all that much investigating; it's more about odor management. Fraud runs through the insurance business like waste through a treatment plant, and the vice presidents in marketing and sales and product development don't care. If they pay out on too many rotten claims, they charge it back to their honest customers by raising premiums. Our marching orders in Special Investigations are to "process" the fraud just enough to keep the stench away from the corner offices and off the front page. Meanwhile, out in the cube village where I work, the aroma seeps into our clothes.

Every day the network routes me three or four claims that failed the smell test over in General Processing. The subject line says, "Attn: Carver Hartnett, Special Investigations Unit," and when I click on the folder icon, the virtual file opens containing all of the supporting medical records, accident reports, claim forms, and death certificates that were scanned in and uploaded by the document-management and knowledge-index jockeys downstairs.

I like computers as much as the next gaming geek, and I appreciate the efficiencies of scanning in the documents instead of carting them around in manila folders. But the veteran investigators all say that the computers and the scanning are just more proof that management is barely interested in actually doing anything about insurance fraud. Those of us trained by real investigators, like Old Man Norton, know that if you really want to smell out a fake claim, you need a file with real papers in it — the accident reports, medical records, claim forms, obituaries, and newspaper clippings — the ones that the fraudster actually held and doctored with Wite-Out or computer imaging or by cutting and pasting photocopies. If you can get your hands on those, you can almost detect fraud by divination, same way a dowser finds water with his rod — some say it's a real smell. Something's not right, so we study the handwriting, the layout, stray marks, margin alignments, the obituary date, the slightly different fonts in one blank on a form that otherwise appears to be an original — all become runes with elusive meanings, and soon the papers give off the unmistakable scent of human deception.

The old-school investigators also yearn for the days when it mattered if you busted a scammer and saved a bogus claim getting paid. Nowadays, the computers don't even flag the tricky ones. Instead they send me three or four laughable virtual "special claim" files, and within five minutes I determine that they don't just smell special, they stink so high in heaven they make the angels weep. No investigation necessary.

I don't really smoke, except during certain periods of my life. These certain periods tend to pop up at work, where, if I need a cigarette, I can find one and avoid buying a whole pack. The company provides a smoking break room with separate ventilation, and also a canopied veranda out front with huge sand pit ashtrays, but all the smokers in the building prefer the fire escape. It overlooks a satellite pediatric clinic operated by one of the big hospitals in town. All day long, nervous mothers drive up in minivans, unpack toddlers from their car seats, and haul them in to see pediatricians. We look on, charmed by the cherubic faces blooming with ruddy innocence, while we squint and suck death into our lungs.

The day my friend Lenny got fired, I'd been out on the fire escape enjoying one of those periods of my life by smoking a Marlboro I'd bummed off a woman from Procurement. When I got back to my workstation, I found a "While You Were Out" electronic sticky blinking on my monitor from my fellow investigator, and daily obsession, Miranda Pryor, advising me that Old Man Norton's assistant had come by in my absence:


Dagmar was here looking for you and Lenny — Mr. Norton has some questions about the life insurance claims on the twenty dead Nigerians.

She said she'd call you later.


Lenny, who works out of the cube to my right, wasn't at his desk. The latest issue of PC Gamer was still open on his keyboard, which meant that he'd left in a hurry — maybe he was already in Old Man Norton's office discussing dead Nigerians. I stalled, skimmed an article in the John Cooke Fraud Report about infant life insurance policies and "baby farming" in the Soviet Union, and hoped I'd be able to check stories with Lenny before Norton called me in.

Miranda probably knew more about what was up with the dead Nigerians, but she was on the phone denying a bogus auto claim. I leaned closer to the cellulose prefab wall between us, closed my eyes, and felt her voice resonate within, as if a tuning fork or a frequency transponder were embedded in my limbic system, stimulating my pleasure circuits, secreting dopamine, serotonin, and erotic neurotransmitters until my entire scalp tingled in sync with the inflections of her voice.

When Miranda denies an insurance claim by phone, she first consoles the would-be claimant with a free vocal massage (for male callers it's closer to a vocal frottage) because her voice is a delicate inveigling rasp textured by fifty-dollar bottles of wine, designer chocolates, and, I imagined, other mysterious and intriguing bad habits. The party on the other end gets an earful of gregarious patter sparkling with authentic concern, and soon Miranda sounds as if she's ready to propose a dinner-date. Until she gets the information she needs to deny the claim, whereupon the telephone romance ends ...

Bet Your Life. Copyright © by Richard Dooling. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Stephen King
“Richard Dooling is one of the finest novelists now working in America.”

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