419 by Will Ferguson (2012) Viking Canada (2012) 393 pp
Will Ferguson is best known as a travel writer, and here he puts his experiences roaming around the world together in a global, political thriller, that isn’t particularly thrilling, and I know some people have issues with it being “global,” particularly as it writes of the experiences of an African woman, and, well, I didn’t think it actually all came together that well. 419 isn’t a terrible book — I thought the writing was nice, and I enjoyed delving into its central motivating plot device — but for me its strengths never quite got the better of its weaknesses.
When the book opens, we watch a car careening down a snowy embankment. Henry Curtis is dead, and it isn’t certain it was an accident. Warren Curtis, the high-strung son, believes his father drove off the cliff on purpose.
He may be right. No one knew it at the time, but before his death Henry put the family home up as collateral for a large loan. It’s strange because the house was paid off and Henry was a retired schoolteacher who spent his time woodworking and visiting internet sites devoted to woodworking. Further, he increased his life insurance policy. Why? His family cannot begin to understand, but investigation reveals multiple emails between Henry and someone named Victor Okechukwu, from Lagos, Nigeria. You’ll probably recognize a lot of this:
SUBJECT: Urgent Matter to the Attention of Mr. Henry Curtis. Please do not turn away!
RECEIVED: September 12, 11:42PM
Complements of the season! With warm heart I offer you wishes of good health from Africa. I am contacting you today regarding an urgent business proposal, and though this letter may reach you as a surprise, I implore you to take the time to go through it carefully as the decisions you make will go a long ways toward determining the future and continued existence of a young woman’s happiness.
Sir, I am writing today on behalf of Miss Sandra, daughter of Dr. Atta, late Director & Chairman of the Contract Award Committee for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. As you may know, Dr. Atta died tragically in a helicopter crash in the Niger Delta under circumstances most suspicious. Miss Sandra’s uncle vowed to care for her, but he too has fallen afoul of government-back criminals
. . .
As might be imagined, between father and uncle, Miss Sandra was able through God’s will to amass quite a sizable fortune. [. . . ] Although only twenty-one and renowned for her beauty she is unable to find a suitor, for she has been forced into hiding by her family’s high-placed enemies.
She has asked me to contact you — MR. HENRY CURTIS — for help. She cannot turn to the police, for the police are part of this murderous cabal. She is pleading on bended knees for you to rescue her from a hopeless future.
Henry’s first response is that they must be confusing him for someone else. But the man on the other end of the email has done his homework: “I was looking for Henry Curtis, graduate of Athabasca University, retired from the noble profession of teachering, a member in Good Standing of the Amateur Woodworking Society of Hounsfield Heights, subscriber of the Briar Hill Beacon Community Newspaper, husband of Helen, grandfather of twins, a highly respected figure in his community, known for his honesty and integrity. I apologize for this mis-sent mailing.”
We’re all familiar with these internet schemes (called 419 after the criminal code that makes it illegal), and several people who have fallen victim have lost everything, like Henry. In this case, though, his daughter, Laura, is going to Nigeria to get it back.
That is only one part of the story. The scammer is actually named Winston, and he’s become a problem in the hierarchical world of cyber scamming. We also meet Nnamdi, a young boy who gets involved in the mafia that controls and regulates these scams. Nnamdi eventually saves a pregnant African Sahel woman, a voice from the impoverished and oppressed.
It’s ambitious, but I think Ferguson bites off more than he can chew. The main story line involving the cyber scam is interesting, and as familiar as we may be with these scams I haven’t encountered it in a novel before, so I enjoyed it, even if I didn’t love it. Truly, it would probably feel slight if it were on its own.
However, after adding the other threads, particularly the one about the Sahel woman, the book felt choppy, and, I think naturally, it started to feel like everything was forced to fit into this examination of corruption and the disparity of wealth. In the end, I felt things didn’t really come together in a believable way, let alone a way that complemented the gravity of the themes.
All that said, I did enjoy the book. It reads nicely and, as ill-fitting as the threads might be, Ferguson gives each a beating heart.