Black Maps

( 6 )


John March walked away from his family’s merchant bank for the life of a rural deputy sheriff–a life that would explode in personal tragedy and professional disaster. Three years later, March is back in New York City, working as a private investigator and still running from his grief and guilt. When he takes the case of Rick Pierro, a wealthy investment banker threatened by blackmail, March is swiftly drawn into a web of Wall Street insiders and outcasts, and back to a world he thought he’d left behind. The ...

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Black Maps

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John March walked away from his family’s merchant bank for the life of a rural deputy sheriff–a life that would explode in personal tragedy and professional disaster. Three years later, March is back in New York City, working as a private investigator and still running from his grief and guilt. When he takes the case of Rick Pierro, a wealthy investment banker threatened by blackmail, March is swiftly drawn into a web of Wall Street insiders and outcasts, and back to a world he thought he’d left behind. The more he learns about Pierro’s connections to a notorious international bank that made billions in blood-money, the darker the terrain becomes. Soon March’s own life is in danger, as he follows a trail of blood and shattered lives to a ruthless and depraved extortionist.

In this thrilling and intelligent debut, Peter Spiegelman illuminates the dark underside of the financial world and introduces one of the most compelling fictional detectives of the new millennium.

Winner of the 2004 Shamus Award for First Novel

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Peter Spigelman's first novel shows that white-collar crime definitely isn't a gentleman's game, exploring a net of conspiracy that runs from back streets in half a dozen major cities to the penthouse offices of people for whom $100 million is pocket change. With a family background tied to finance, ex-sheriff's investigator turned Manhattan P.I. John March is in his element unraveling a strange extortion case tied to the collapse of a giant financial institution, Merchant's Worldwide Bank. The client, Rick Pierro, a wealthy, fast-track banking executive, has been faxed documents tying him to illegal money-laundering -- to the tune of billions a day -- apparently carried out by MWB. Pierro could lose everything if such documents were made public. Claiming that his business dealings with Merchant's were always legitimate, he hires March to locate the anonymous blackmailer and make a preemptive offer to have the whole mess go away. Intrigued as much by Pierro's response as by the situation itself, March starts backtracking and soon finds that the Merchant's scandal was only the tip of an iceberg of greed, coercion, violence, and casual murder that is compounding criminally high interest with each passing day. Black Maps is a compelling combination of financial thriller and hard-boiled noir. Sue Stone
From the Publisher
“Spiegelman knows where the bodies are buried and he knows how to write. Impressive.”– Jonathan Kellerman

"John March is one of the most intriguing new P.I.s to come along in quite some time."- Publishers Weekly

"A stunner... [It] keeps readers in the dark until the very last page. Suspenseful narrative, superb characters, and a prevailing atmosphere of Chandler-esque melancholy. . .to ask for more in a mystery would be criminal.”– Newsday

“A first-rate thriller from a first-rate novelist.” —Rocky Mountain News

“Spiegelman has a fine eye for the details of Manhattan corporate life . . . An important and facinating book.” —Chicago Tribune

"Engrossing... from the first growls of its take-no-prisoners narrator, all the way to the vivid financial details that only an insider can deliver."-  Brad Meltzer

Publishers Weekly
After a lengthy, but never boring, setup, Spiegelman's first novel pitches from one taut, suspenseful scene to another, with New York PI John March at the center but also including an impressive cast of allies, adversaries and interlopers. The author lays out the collapse of financial giant MWB (Merchant's Worldwide Bank) and the subsequent federal investigations in detail. March's friend, lawyer Michael Metz, hires him to help a client, an officer at a major investment bank. It appears that fallout from MWB's collapse has prompted a blackmailer to use information seemingly derived from MWB documents to threaten Metz's client with exposure that would ruin his career. Real or manufactured, this data would be damaging. March must be careful, of course, not to step on federal toes. From computers to shoe leather, March's dogged search is entertaining, plausible and ultimately dangerous. Nothing about this stylish, literate mystery reads like a debut, as Spiegelman handles the complex plot with verve and artfully sets the stage for a backstory with mere hints about the trauma that drove March from upstate cop to PI. John March is one of the most intriguing new PIs to come along in quite some time, and if this strong first outing is any indication, he should be in for a long and enjoyable run. (Aug. 17) Forecast: With a 75,000-copy first printing and its fascinating picture of the financial world, this first mystery is a likely candidate for extra printings. BOMC selection. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
John March, a sheriff's investigator for seven years in upstate New York, gainedfame for solving a serial killer case that had baffled locals and the FBI. He lost his wife to this killer, went into a tailspin of alcohol abuse, then emerged as a private eye in Manhattan. Now working for a lawyer friend, he must find out who is blackmailing a self-made millionaire in danger of losing it all. A mysterious financier, missing for three years, seems to be the key, while both a sociopathic ex-employee of the financier and the FBI threaten March. Although Spiegelman's first novel makes good use of the author's 20 years of financial experience, this is not just a thriller about white-collar crime but classic, hard-boiled noir. March is a loner-tough, smart, sassy with authorities, and wary of feminine attraction. The characters are believable, the beatings hurt, the good guy and the girl are drawing closer at the end, and good mostly triumphs. Spiegelman knows how to let March tell the story, how to keep our interest while imparting some financial tidbits, and especially how to keep us turning the pages. Recommended for all mystery and suspense collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/03.]-Roland Person, Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Not so much a who-dun-it as a who-didn't, Spiegelman's first sets its hard-boiled sights on high-finance, money laundering, and extortion. John March is a country cop turned big-city private dick with a checkered past. After foregoing a lucrative position at the helm of his family's bank to become a sheriff's investigator, only to lose everything after shooting the serial killer who murdered his wife, John escapes to Manhattan to do private work for friend and lawyer, Michael Metz. Mike introduces him to Rick Pierro, a big-time Wall Street player with ties to Merchant's Worldwide Bank, whose roof collapsed after a federal investigation and the disappearances and deaths of key management. Pierro has received a curious fax from an anonymous blackmailer, and though he's claimed innocence, wishes to comply in a strategic move to salvage his reputation as an honest businessman. Pierro's wife, Helene, plays aloof, but John keeps returning to question her. Picking up clues, he learns of Gerard Nassouli, the shrewd, lecherous mastermind behind MWB's illegal practices. Focusing on the weak and elderly, Nassouli mined the corporate world for "pet traders" and cynical vice-presidents, taking them under his wing by introducing them to crooks and drug-cartels working under the auspices of major companies, and, once a deal was struck, cuckolding said pets into money laundering with threats of bodily harm and career-ending videotapes. With his own background in finance and software, Spiegelman makes up an intensely complicated and intriguing plot, at its best precise and suspenseful, at its worst a superfluous muddle. But March is a strong and fatalistic character with a flawless nose for bull. His hasrun-ins, often violent, with a psychotic G-man; a strong-arm named Trautmann; and various underworld parasites and has-beens. After an underdeveloped love interest, there's a bloody tying up of loose threads. A provocative debut, likely to exercise its film rights. First printing of 75,000; Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Agent: Denise Marcil/Marcil Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400033591
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/31/2005
  • Series: John March Series, #1
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 490,961
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Spiegelman is a veteran of more than twenty years in the financial services and software industries and has worked with leading financial institutions in major markets around the globe.  Mr. Spiegelman retired in 2001 to devote himself to writing. He is also the author of Death's Little Helpers. He lives in Connecticut.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Everyone was in a bad mood. It was a palpable thing in midtown, as pungent as the bus exhaust on the cold evening air and as loud as the traffic. The streets were awash in it. Cars and trucks and taxicabs were locked in mortal combat, surging forward by inches, then rocking to a halt, their drivers cursing and leaning on their horns, their passengers fuming. Surly streams of people poured from office towers and washed into the gridlock, adding their own fulminations to the angry grind. Sharp elbows and rude gestures were everywhere.

Maybe it was the season that brought it on—a week before Thanksgiving, the cusp of the holidays. Maybe it was the prospect of Christmas shopping, or of all that family time, bearing down like a freight train. Maybe it was the gnawing obsession with this year’s bonus—assuming there was one—or the corrosive dwelling on the next round of layoffs. Maybe everyone was battle fatigued—edgy from the latest terror alerts, strung-out from life in the crosshairs. Or maybe it was just another hellish rush hour. Whatever, it was some nasty karma.

At seven p.m. I was threading my way through these wretches, headed up Park Avenue toward 52nd Street. The intersection was a particular mess. Sawhorses and traffic cones were scattered across it, and in the middle of the street was a trench that belched steam. Steel plates only partly covered the excavation, and I wondered if anyone had yet disappeared into its depths. I crossed 52nd, threading between two taxis, and pushed against a wave of people into the lobby of Mike’s building. I crossed the marble floor to the guard station, produced half a dozen pieces of ID, waited while they called upstairs, signed in, and got on an elevator. I pressed 30, and the doors closed silently.

Michael Metz is a partner at the law firm of Paley, Clay and Quick, and the firm’s biggest rainmaker. He’s also my friend, and has been since college, from the day we first chased each other around a squash court, vying for a spot on the team ladder. For the last couple of years, he’s also been my most regular employer. Mike’s got an eclectic practice—corporate work, entertainment, matrimonial, every now and then some criminal work. And I’ve done lots of different things for him— background checks, find-the-girlfriend, find-the-boyfriend, find-the-assets. But tonight, he’d said, was something different.

The elevator doors opened with a sigh, and I stepped into Paley, Clay’s reception area. At this hour, in this season, it was dark and quiet. The front desk sat in a pool of light and looked like a mahogany tollbooth. It dwarfed the old guard dozing behind it. He yawned and rubbed his eyes as I approached.

“John March to see Mike Metz,” I told him. He flipped slowly through the wrinkled papers on his clipboard and punched some numbers into the phone. He whispered into the handset, and told me in a voice I could barely hear to go in.

I pushed through glass doors and walked down a broad corridor lined on one side by shelves of law books, and on the other by offices. The offices were mostly dark, though here and there I spotted some luckless associates and scowling paralegals. I turned a corner and passed a vacant conference room, an empty kitchen, and a small clutch of people staring anxiously at a copy machine. I walked through another set of glass doors into a region of larger offices, Oriental rugs, and dark wood paneling. Partner country.

Mike stood at the end of the hallway, outside the double doors of his office. He was bent over his secretary’s desk, pen in hand, leafing through a thick file. He was, as always, impeccably turned out. He wore a navy suit, expertly cut to his lanky frame, a brilliant white shirt, and a tightly knotted tie, patterned with green and gold dolphins leaping on a field of royal blue. His cuff links were enamel hexagons in a blue that matched his tie. His cap-toed shoes were gleaming black. As a concession to the late hour, he had unbuttoned his jacket.

He pulled a sheaf of papers from the file, set them on top of the folder, scrawled something on the top page, and put the whole pile in the center of his secretary’s spotless desk. He straightened to his full six-foot-four height and ran a hand through his sparse, dark hair. Mike is in his middle thirties, just a couple of years older than me, but he looks forty-something. The price of partnership, I guess. He still plays competitive squash, though, and the impenetrable calm and arctic patience that drove me nuts in college still carry him into the late rounds of every tournament he enters. They make him pure hell to face in a courtroom, too. He eyed my clothes.

“You sort of dressed for the occasion,” he said. “Thanks.” Unlike Mike, I was not always impeccably turned out. According to him, several of his partners were sure I was a bicycle messenger. But now, in gray flannels, a black wool polo shirt, and a black leather jacket, I was well within the bounds of appropriate.

“No visible tattoos, no piercings, and I unscrewed the bolts in my neck. What more could you ask?” I said. “Where’s your guy?”

“In the conference room, but let’s talk a little first.” Mike leaned against the desk.

“That would be good,” I said, “since you’ve told me exactly nothing about this.” I sat in his secretary’s chair.

“There’s a reason. The guy is shaken up right now, and based on what he’s told me, he’s probably right to be. I’ve known him a long time, and he’s not usually a jumpy guy. But right now he’s scared and paranoid.”

“Okay, he’s scared and paranoid, no different from most clients. But what’s his problem? And does he have a name?” Mike looked at me. A rueful grin came across his lean, sharp-featured face.

“He does,” Mike answered, “but he’d rather I didn’t tell you what it is—or anything more about him—until he’s had a chance to size you up.” My eyebrows went up. “He wants to look you over. He wants to get a sense of you before he starts talking about his problems. Like I said, he’s scared. You have to bear with him.”

“He understand that I’d actually be working for you on this?”

“He understands. And I told him I’ve had a lot of experience with you, and that you’re smart and thorough and stubborn, and that you run faster and jump higher and have healthy teeth and a shiny coat, and probably some other lies too. But he’s jumpy.” Mike shrugged.

“Let’s go,” I said, sighing, and I followed him into the conference room.

The room was dim, lit only by the small ceiling lights that shone on the architectural prints ranged around the walls, and by the city lights that glowed through the bank of windows opposite the door. In the center of the room was an oval table in dark wood. A man was sitting at it, facing the door. On the table, next to him, was a small filing box. The man didn’t look scared and he didn’t look jumpy. He looked rich.

He was in his early forties, with olive skin and black hair brushed straight back from a wide forehead. He had a broad chest and thick neck, and thick shoulders and wrists. His wide face was clean-shaven, with dark, deep-set eyes and a nose that looked like it might once have been broken. He had the start of a double chin and a slight blurriness to his jawline that might some day ripen into jowls. But it hadn’t happened yet. Now he was like a sleek, well-fed bear. And a well-dressed bear, too. He wore a shirt striped in several shades of blue, and a silk tie in a dark, solid red. At his cuffs were intricate gold knots. A gray suit jacket was slung over the chair next to him. He stared at me but said nothing.

I sat down across the table from him. Mike shut the door, drifted over to the window, and stared out at the nighttime city. The man sat back, propped his elbows on the arms of his chair, and looked at me over the top of his steepled fingers. Then he rubbed his eyes with his fingertips and took a deep breath. And then we were all quiet for a while. Still looking out the window, Mike prompted him.

“You had some questions for John.”

“Yeah,” he answered after some thought. He slipped a thick silver pen from his shirt pocket and began to twirl it in his right hand. “Yeah. My first question is how long have you been doing this? Investigating.” His voice was surprisingly soft and had a trace of an accent. Brooklyn or Long Island.

“Just over two years,” I answered. “I was a cop for seven years before that.”

“In the city?” I shook my head.



“Farther north. Burr County. It’s in the Adirondacks.” He was quiet and looked at me some more.

“You from up there?” he asked.

“No.” I didn’t offer any more. He thought about that a little and then went on.

“You were a detective?”

“I was a sheriff’s investigator for five years. I spent the first two in uniform.”

“Homicide investigator?”

“We weren’t set up that way. We were a small department, so investigators covered everything. Property crime, domestic, drugs, vice. And homicide,” I added.

“Not much white-collar crime up there, I guess,” he observed. I laughed a little.

“Not much.”

“How old are you?” I glanced at Mike, who gazed like a lighthouse keeper out over the city.


“You go to college?”


“You start with the sheriff right after?”


He pulled the cap off his pen and then slipped it back on, again and again. He looked down at his large, well-kept hands while he did it, like they were someone else’s hands. He looked up at me again.

“Were you good at it?”

I glanced at Mike. No help there. He could have been working out his tax returns or figuring the age of the universe or reminiscing fondly about his last meal at Le Bernardin.

“I was good at it.”

“Why’d you stop doing it?” I saw Mike’s shoulders stiffen. The man stopped playing with his pen. I took a deep breath.

“Personal reasons,” I said. He was quiet for a while.

“It was your choice? They didn’t ask you to leave?”

“It was my choice.”

The man leaned back in his chair. “And the private investigating, are you good at that, too?” I paused. This was getting old.

“No, not really. Mostly I hang out at home watching TV, faking my time reports, and padding my expenses.” The man sat up. He held his pen in his fist, looking at me, the first stirrings of anger on his brow. Mike turned around, his face in neutral. I went on, speaking evenly, matter-of-factly.

“What do you expect me to say? Of course I’m going to say I’m good. And that could be true or it could be a load of crap. And there’s not much we can talk about here that will tell you one way or the other. I can understand your position. You’ve got a problem, and it must be a bad one if you need to hire someone like me. I imagine the last thing you want is to make it worse by involving some clown who’s incompetent, indiscreet, greedy, or worse. I’m not that clown, but you’ve got to take Mike’s word on that. Or not.”

He sat perfectly still in his chair, looking across at me. Mike sighed and said, “Well, I think we’re done for the moment, yes?” The man slipped his pen back into his pocket and nodded his head very slightly.

“John, could you wait outside?” Mike asked.

I shut the door behind me.

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Table of Contents

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Peter Spiegelman

Q:What prompted you to leave the financial world behind and become a writer?

A:It was the intersection of opportunity and longtime interest. Several years ago, my partners and I sold our banking software company to a much bigger firm, and signed on to manage the integration of our business into the larger operation. My contract with the company ended in 2001, and I found myself with time on my hands, and an interest in doing something different. That something was writing. I’ve always been an avid reader, and a big fan of thrillers and detective novels, and from time to time I’d thought about trying my hand at one. I’d done a lot of writing as an undergraduate — though of poetry rather than prose — and during the twenty-plus years I spent in software and banking, I’d often thought about pursuing it again. In 2001, I had both the time and the wherewithal to do it.

Q:When did you first get the idea for Black Maps and for the character of John March?
A:I got the idea for March and for Black Maps while commuting to and from the office. The character of March came first, and I suppose he arose in part from the venerable tradition of damaged heroes in detective fiction. Certainly some of my earliest thoughts about him had to do with the loss he’s suffered, and the highly disciplined, nearly ascetic life — of work and running and solitude — that he’s constructed to keep his pain at bay. I also knew that March would have an almost photographic eye for detail — that he would be a “close observer” (as Le Carre describes the heroof The Night Manager) of people and things, and that this would be part of what makes him good at his work.

As March evolved in my imagination, as his toughness and skepticism emerged, along with his edginess and loneliness, it became clear to me that he could only be a New Yorker. It also seemed natural to me to place him not precisely on Wall Street, but around it — to give him an insider’s knowledge of The Street, but without the self-infatuation of an insider. I wanted him to have some critical distance, and a healthy mistrust.

The idea for Black Maps itself came out of my interest in banking scandals. I’ve been a sort of amateur student of these over the years, and I was particularly fascinated by the BCCI story, elements of which inspired the fictitious Merchants Worldwide Bank in my book. I began thinking about what a firm like BCCI might have looked like in the middle and late-1990’s, during the wave of globalization that swept over banking and business in general, and I started thinking about bankers who might do business with that kind of firm — innocently or otherwise.

My commute was about 45 minutes each way, and I found it was just right for working out bits of back-story and plot.

Q:Where did the title Black Maps come from?

Black Maps is the name of a favorite poem of mine, by Mark Strand. I like Strand’s work very much and I’ve used a passage from that piece as the epigram of my book. In part, the poem is about the fluid nature of perception, about how you never really know where you are, about how notions of self and place and order are our own constructions — artifacts of our own needs. It describes the present as something known only in retrospect, slowly rising up, emerging in the way that a photographic print develops. It’s an apt gloss on March’s circumstances as he conducts his investigation, and as he stumbles through his own life.

Q:You give intricate details of financial dealings--from corporate takeovers, to money laundering schemes, to investigations into white-collar crime. How much of this novel is informed by your own work experience and how much did you need to research?
My work experience in banking and running a software company made it relatively easy for me to write about the financial stuff, and about the whole corporate milieu. And beyond an understanding of the mechanics of the markets, the time I spent on trading floors gave me some insight into the people who work there, the things that drive them, the pressures they operate under and the way they can sometimes misbehave. When it came to the criminal elements, I found I already knew a fair amount, not so much from work but from my longtime interest in banking scandals. I’d always been fascinated by these, and had read a lot about them, and this gave me a good head start.

Q:So tell us–how much of Peter Spiegelman is in John March?
A:I suppose it’s inevitable that we have some things in common. March is a runner, and so am I, though his knees are in better shape than mine. He’s the black sheep of his family, and I went through a black sheep period with mine. Our tastes in music and fiction are similar, too. More substantively, I guess I’m something of a “close observer” in the way that March is (and as I imagine all writers are to some extent). And the kind of work I did — developing trading software — afforded me a perspective on Wall Street not unlike March’s “inside-outsider” view.

Q:When it comes to Rick Pierro and other characters in this novel, it seems that in the high stakes world of big money, suspicion is enough to kill a career. Is there a certain level of paranoia at the top?
A:Maybe not as much as there should be. I think we’re going through a period of increased sensitivity to issues of corporate governance, of greater scrutiny of executive behavior — of heightened alertness for impropriety, and the appearance of impropriety. For the moment, these issues are having a significant impact on share valuations, hence people at the top are treading more carefully. I imagine they’re a little more sensitive to what they put in their e-mail, too. But I’m not sure how long it will last. Attention spans are short, and certainly there are plenty of other issues for investors to worry about these days — war and terrorism, for example — that eclipses other concerns. There’s an unfortunate sense of entitlement that can develop in corporate suites, and I expect it will reassert itself before too long.

Q:You explore how quickly a person can step over the line, be tempted into breaking the law and find there is no going back. Did you see a lot of that happening when you worked on Wall Street?
Hard though it is to believe, every now and then people cross the line on Wall Street. I saw some instances of it during my career there, and heard of more, though never anything as egregious as the goings on in Black Maps. The transgressions are not often Enron-scale — and they don’t often get Enron-scale attention in the press — but they happen. When they do it’s impossible, as a writer, not to wonder why — and impossible not to have a theory.

I don’t think that people cross the line all that quickly. I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and just decides to inflate their P&L with fictitious trades, for example, or to mis-price their trading positions, or churn some client accounts. I think instead that people inch across the line — one trade, one position, one account at a time. When they find they can get away with it, they do it more. And I suspect a Wall Street trader’s decision to steal is not much different than that made by any other thief — that it’s driven by a mix of greed, fear, ambition and desperation. But I think there are some aspects unique to Wall Street.

Certainly pressure is a factor. People with P&L responsibility are under a great deal of pressure to produce, and the stakes for those individuals can be quite high. When the markets were booming, the potential rewards were astronomical; nowadays, it can be a matter of keeping your job. I think the age and maturity of the people involved also figure into it. There are a lot of very young people on Wall Street, who’ve come there from top schools, from around the world. They’re unseasoned and full of great expectations, and sometimes impatience and a great sense of entitlement as well. When the markets don’t cooperate with them, they may not always exercise the best judgment.

But people who cross the line don’t do it in a vacuum; corporate culture plays a role. When a firm’s management elects not to spend money on effective internal controls, it is not only creating an environment where theft and fraud can go undetected, it’s sending a signal that it doesn’t want to know about certain things — a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of signal. Similarly, when compensation policies focus on an employee’s contribution to the bottom-line — to the exclusion of virtually all other criteria — management may be sending a tacit message about ends and means. Indeed, when finally caught, more than one transgressor has used corporate culture as a defense — or at least an extenuating circumstance. Controls and policies can’t completely protect firms, or investors, from dishonest employees, but they shouldn’t aid and abet them either.

Q:At one point March describes New Yorkers as “battle fatigued” and “tired of life in the crosshairs.” Was it difficult setting a novel in New York City post 9/11?
It was very difficult. I was well into the book when the attacks took place, and I found it hard to work for weeks afterwards. When I did get back to it, I recognized that March’s world — like everyone else’s — had changed. What I didn’t know was how.

For a long while, I struggled trying to figure out what kind of city March should live in, how large 9/11 should loom in the novel, and how to acknowledge the event in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed or exploitive. When I realized that I couldn’t answer any of those questions, and that I wasn’t getting much writing done, I decided to put them on a back burner, and go on telling my story. It wasn’t until much later, working with my editor, that I took them up again. By then, things in New York had settled down a bit and it was possible to get some perspective and a sense of proportion. We weren’t lurching from threat to threat just then, and the first layers of scar tissue had begun to form. A semblance of normality had returned to the city. But there was sadness just beneath the surface, as I think there still is, and anger and a sense of vulnerability as well. Per force, people had learned to live in a target zone, but they weren’t inured to it — and they still aren’t. That New York became the setting for Black Maps.

Q:March is a Private Investigator in the information age. As a writer and reader of crime novels how do you think the internet and its “do it yourself” promises have changed the landscape of criminal investigations?
Given his age and his background, it seemed reasonable that March would be comfortable with technology. When it comes to the Internet, he’s neither intimidated nor enthralled by it, but takes it for granted as a useful tool, no different than a car or a telephone or a toaster. March makes extensive use of several public records search engines in Black Maps. I spent a fair amount of time looking into those kinds of services, and I was amazed (and a little appalled) by the range of information for sale out there — to pretty much anyone with a credit card.

From a writer’s perspective, and putting aside concerns about invasion of privacy, it seems to me that the easy availability of this kind of information could herald an end to all those shadowed scenes of detectives pouring over court records in dusty archives, or scouring the back-issues of newspapers in the public library — at least in novels with a contemporary setting. It doesn’t mean that all atmospheric legwork will be obsolete, of course. Like so much on the Internet, there’s often less to the public records search engines than meets the eye. The information on them can be old or incomplete, or just plain wrong, and valuable nuggets are sometimes buried in an avalanche of irrelevant facts. When that’s the case, an investigator must fall back on traditional methods, such as telephones and shoe leather.

Q:Gerard Nassouli, bad guy extraordinaire and one of the main characters in Black Maps, never actually appears in the novel. A) He is such a great bad guy! How did you think him up? And B) What are the different challenges in bringing to life a character out of the stories and memories of other characters?
Gerard came out of my desire to put a human face on the organized evil of Merchants Worldwide Bank — to give it a more specific center of gravity. I wanted to create a guy who embodied the temptations of Wall Street, its seductions, and who had a kind of perfect pitch for human weakness — a sort of infernal salesman.

I enjoyed Gerard, though writing him as memory in the minds of other characters did present some difficulties. First and foremost, it was hard to give him much dialogue — which is certainly a hindrance to character development — at least for me. It was also impossible for him to interact with March, so I couldn’t bring March’s considerable powers of observation directly to bear on him. There were ways around some of these problems. For example, although March can’t actually meet Gerard, he is able to look through his office, and at the things he’s left behind there. March is such a good PI, even Gerard’s bric-a-brac speaks to him.

There were definite advantages to this approach too. Creating Gerard through memory — through the scars he’s left on other characters — enabled me to present him in more times and places than I could have working through March’s eyes alone, and in that sense it eased some of the strictures of first-person narrative. And the stories and memories of Gerard served to illuminate not just their subject, but — I hope — their tellers as well.

On balance, I liked having a “missing man” in the book, and I’ll probably do it again.

Q:In the world you write about you’ve got guys like Rick–self made men from blue collar beginnings–working alongside guys born with silver spoons in their mouths. You’ve got guys like March–from privileged backgrounds–leaving it all behind to be a cop and then a PI. Were you interested in exploring how class and money help and hinder careers or can one simply not write about Wall Street without taking that into account?
Both. Of the many interesting things about Wall Street, the most fascinating to me has always been the mix of people who work there. On a single trading desk it’s possible to find a fourth-generation Ivy Leaguer, a descendant of European royalty, the son of a Midwest farmer, and a guy who’s barely ventured out of the tri-state area, all working side-by-side. It’s an odd sort of melting pot, and it makes for some interesting social dynamics.

Overall, I think traditional notions of social class probably matter less there today than they have in the past. Which is not to say they don’t matter at all — they do, as evidenced by the number of less-than-qualified children of the rich and well-connected that one finds working at some firms. And family pedigree continues to be an advantage at certain houses and in certain types of businesses, such as private banking. Connections never hurt on Wall Street.

There’s another type of class struggle that plays itself out there every day, however: between revenue generators in the front-office and support staff in the back. To an extent, this tension is no different than what you might find between profit centers and cost centers in other industries, but it’s intensified by the power enjoyed by the money-makers on Wall Street, the immense disparity in income between them and their support staff, and the fact that positions in this hierarchy are closely correlated with educational pedigree (arguably the basis of contemporary class distinctions in this country). The hierarchy is a rigid one, more so these days, I think, than in the past. The Rick Pierro of today would have a harder time than his counterpart of ten or twenty years ago in making the jump from loan officer to investment banker.

March is the other side of that coin, in a way. I wanted him to be not only an “inside-outsider” on Wall Street, but also — by virtue of his background — a sort of “outside-insider” in the world of cops and PIs. Class and money separate him from other cops and PIs, who view him with suspicion and see him as a dilettante.

Q:March’s father-in-law describes looking at the world with “A Cop’s-eye-view.” What does the world look like from this vantage point?
Donald Stennis, March’s father-in-law, is the long-serving sheriff of rural Burr County, in upstate New York, and the guy who got March into police work in the first place. Stennis is intimately familiar with his jurisdiction, and particularly its grittier precincts. He has an unsentimental, realistic view of what goes on there, and a sociologist’s fascination with it. At the same time, he sees police work as being mainly about helping people. He knows the crooks in his county, and he knows the victims, and he has a proprietary feeling about them all. He’s probably not the typical cop — assuming there is such a thing. But he manages to communicate his love for the job to March, who comes to share it.

Q:March describes the Wall Street of several years ago “before the party ended, before the bubble burst, and the triumphal march of the imperial CEOs and celebrity analysts finished in a string of perp walks.” How different is the Wall Street of today and how is this novel informed by high profile scandals like Enron?
Wall Street is a very different place these days than it was even just a few years ago. It’s a smaller, more subdued place. Obviously, it still bears the scars of 9/11 — lost family, lost colleagues, and a persistent sense of vulnerability, of being a target. And it bears the scars of recent scandals — damaged reputations, diminished status, public mistrust, ongoing regulatory scrutiny, etc. There are more people out of work, and some businesses — like M&A, for example — that used to pull in hundreds of millions in revenue for firms just a few years ago, have all but disappeared. And, unless you’re in the executive suite, the bonuses have shrunk drastically. Fewer people see Wall Street as the center of the universe these days, and rightly so; certainly fewer young people are flocking there after college or graduate school. I think the people who are left are less secure, and maybe a little chastened — though perhaps that’s overstating it.

Some of these changes will last only as long as the current economic downturn; when the money flows back in, so will the people and all the excess. For now, though, it’s a diminished place, and from a writer’s perspective a more interesting one.

Q:What’s next for you and will we be seeing more of March?
A:I’m currently working on my second novel, which features John March and more malfeasance on Wall Street.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2003

    A Great Read

    Black Maps is a very original mystery. The setting for the book is NYC and its various neighborhoods, which come to life with Spiegelman's vivid style of writing. Black Maps combines elements that you expect to find in a mystery novel -- blackmail, murder, violence, etc -- but the elements have unxpected twists and turns, which make the book fun and exiting to read. The financial backdrop is interesting, without being overwheleming. It gives readers a peek into a world ruled by money, power, greed and fear. I would encourage all fans of mystery to give this debut novelist a try. Its well worth the time -- you won't be disappointed.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2003

    A THRILLING Wall St. P.I. story? Who'd've guessed?

    When my friend lent me a 'You've GOTTA read this!' copy of Black Maps, I was sceptical that a P.I. thriller set in NYC's financial world could be, well, thrilling. I don't know thing one about Wall St., and CNBC and the Bloomberg channel bore me comatose, so I didn't think this one would do it for me. BOY, was I ever wrong! ¿ This book's P.I., John March, is one of the coolest main characters I've read in a long time. He's as cool, tough, and street smart as the classic private eyes from Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, etc., but he's really modern (he uses search engines!), educated, and even urbane. And yet he's not afraid to get his hands -- specifically his fists! -- dirty, and he knows exactly how to communicate with the people he encounters during an investigation (when to be sympathetic, when to intimidate, when to be the strong/silent listener, etc.). Also, he has a really stormy and painful past -- for instance, he's from a high-powered banking family, but he's the only person to have ever done anything different (REALLY different) -- and we learn little bits of it throughout the book. The darkness and hurt from his past sort of pervade everything he does in different ways, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, but always really interesting. ¿ In his case in Black Maps, John March has to help a guy who's about to get a big promotion at a banking firm, but in his past there's some slight connection to a now-busted criminal bank (Merchants Worldwide Bank, also known as the 'Money Washing Bank' -- awesome!). The guy himself is not crooked -- he's actually a really interesting and sympathetic character -- but a frightening extortionist is threatening to use the MWB connection to ruin the guy's career. As March investigates, he comes across many interesting people. The whole time, a massive sense of high-stakes dread builds as March learns more and more about some of the evil characters who'd been power players at MWB -- particularly it's CEO, who's basically Satan in a Joseph Abboud suit. ¿ Also, March even meets a girl, so there's something for everybody in this book! ¿ Anyway, although I generally roll my eyes when people rave about 'I couldn't put it down' books, I *really* couldn't put it down -- it got me through the rainy Labor Day weekend in the Northeast Corridor! I didn't get lost or bored by all the financial stuff because it's all made very understandable -- but not in some stuffy econ. class kind of way! -- and the stakes are kept very high and personal throughout the novel. ¿ I'm guessing that there will be more John March novels to come, so I'll definitely be buying them. Meanwhile, Black Maps is at the top of my 'rereading' list!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2003

    Brilliant and engrossing.

    Black Maps is a great story that weaves intrigue and danger into the world of high finance, a place not ordinarily known for such gritty drama. The central character is a P.I. of enviable flair and intelligence, but not a character who's been forced into being interesting: he just IS. It's great to see the world of Wall Street so exposed by an insider, especially one with a great story to tell.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    strong urban noir private investigative tale

    If anyone knows the price of fame it is John March, a former upstate New York law enforcement official. John gained his fifteen minutes of distinction when he solved a serial killer case, but at the cost of the murderer killing his spouse. Leaving his job to drown his sorrow and guilt with the bottle, John eventually relocates to Manhattan to work as a private investigator. <P>College friend attorney Mike Metz arranges for John to help investment banker Rick Pierro. Someone is blackmailing Rick using documentation from as late as eighteen years ago that alleges the financier was part of a money-laundering scheme. The culprit threatens Rick¿s career by aborting a major promotion to the executive committee if the allegations became known. Rick wants John to find the extortionist in order to strike a deal until the selections are made in five weeks. Though accounting forensics is outside his lane, John accepts the case. However, the FBI tells him to stay out or else face charges of impeding a federal investigation while John¿s inquiries go nowhere except to a missing financier. <P>BLACK MAPS takes the white collar out of the financial mystery by placing it inside an urban noir private investigative tale with a blue-collar attitude due to the hero. The story line is somewhat complex because of the fiscal dealings, but more so because of John who swims in a salty sea filled with tuxedo sharks with he being a fresh water guppy. Though his angst and guilt at times feels overwhelming, the lead character is a strong individual. Peter Spiegelman needs to write more adventures of John in the land of Wall Street. <P>Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 13, 2011

    couple of good twists

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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