Easy Money: 'Grisham of Wall Street' Offers Up Financial Thrills and Chills

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The slick trader stands at his desk, sleeves rolled up and screaming orders, responding to the moves of a power broker tucked far away in a cathedral-like office atop the Manhattan skyline. A sexy, plucky woman fights the glass ceiling and the powerful men aligned against her. All the while, a big man in a leather easy chair stares at the long ash on his cigar, secretly controlling their every move.

These are the clich¿d images of Wall Street employed in a series of entertaining books by former investment banker Stephen Frey. His latest work,

Inner Sanctum

, joins his 1995 effort

Takeover

and 1996's

Vulture Fund

in creating a new genre of mystery novel -- the financial thriller. Quite suddenly that genre is hotter than insider trading: Frey's first two books did more than 150,000 hardcovers and 650,000 paperbacks each, and the new book may do better. Publisher

Dutton/Penguin

presents these as "John Grisham meets Wall Street" with "an intimate knowledge of the secret heart of Wall Street," and all too many book reviewers have been happy to ape those comparisons. But those reviewers are right: Books so coldly calculated to sell, sell, sell could

only

come from Wall Street.

The plots of Frey's novels are reliably far-fetched. Rather than compact mysteries -- the type where

Philip Marlowe

decks the thug and lands the dame -- Frey's plots are all elaborate conspiracies, typically involving crooked senators, Federal Reserve corruption and a cabal of bankers trying to bring down stock exchanges worldwide. The bankers, of course, are short the market.

Notions like selling short, locking in interest rates and abusing power all seem familiar to anyone with an abounding interest in the Street, and that interest is the vein Frey has tapped into. "Everybody is into Wall Street these days," explains Frey, who holds a BA and an MBA from the

University of Virginia

. "Fifty percent of Americans are invested in equities, and what with IRAs and 401(k)s... I figured that if people would buy legal thrillers and high-tech thrillers, they'd certainly buy a lot of financial thrillers."

Frey wrote

Takeover

while working on the Eurodollar trading desk for

Westdeutche Landesbank

in midtown Manhattan four years ago (he had prior stints at

Irving Trust Co.

and

J.P. Morgan

). "I was coming back from a business trip when I picked up a John Grisham book at the airport," he says. "By the time the plane took off I was hooked. A few hours later, the stewardess came over to tell me that we'd landed and I was the only one left on the plane. When I got into the car waiting for me, the first thing I did was put the light on in the back and kept reading until I got home. I was riveted."

Frey figured that if Grisham could do it, he could too. So he took up writing, putting down 1,000 words a night until he had the first half of

Takeover

done. A friend of a friend of a friend sent him to Cynthia Manson, an agent with an office across the street from Westdeutche's trading floor. "I was skeptical," says Manson. "I've read a lot of unsolicited manuscripts and this really stood out. But even half of

Takeover

showed a Grisham-ish feel; a mainstream thriller feel to it."

Historically "Fin Fic" -- as financial fiction is known in the trade -- has been a dog. But Manson thought she might change that with Frey. "I liked the angle of finance," she says. "I think there is a great interest in Wall Street. With

Barbarians at the Gate

, with the Oliver Stone story in

Wall Street

, with the brokers who lost their shirts in '87, the yuppie obsession, I felt like there was a younger group of people who had this kind of interest."

Manson proceeded to shop Frey as "the John Grisham of Wall Street" and eventually found takers on both coasts. Two weeks after Dutton/Penguin signed Frey to a two-book deal, Hollywood agent Mace Neufeld of

Neufeld Rehme

-- producer of

Hunt for Red October

and

Patriot Game

-- bought the movie rights to

Takeover

. (Frey would go on to shamelessly name the hero in

Vulture Fund

Mace McClain, but nonetheless

Takeover, the movie

remains unmade.)

Frey is unapologetic about the commercial nature of his prose. Wall Streeters loved his first book (including a plug from

CNBC's

Ron Insana

; I was given

Takeover

by a

New York Stock Exchange

two-dollar broker/mystery addict), but now Frey is striving to appeal to a broader audience. "There's an attempt on my part to back off the hardcore financial stuff to sell more books," says Frey. "If you'd seen the first draft of

The Takeover

, it looked like a textbook until my editor took all that out. It's gotta be financial, but you don't want somebody in Missouri saying, 'Huh?' "

Frey has since quit his day job and lives in Princeton, N.J., with his wife, Lillian, and daughters, Christina, 10, and Ashley, 4. But despite being away from the Street, he clings to a fundamentally market-oriented view of writing. "This country is doing so well because the capital markets are so efficient and there are some darn good people doing it," he says. "And I think that's one of the reasons I'm selling so many books."

Frey doesn't talk about writing -- he talks about sales. He admits that he doesn't read other writers, except Grisham. But Frey preaches the gospel of shareholder value -- and he's the shareholder. "I certainly would love to write

Moby Dick

, but I don't know if those kind of books are selling a lot these days," he says. "I'm trying to give people what they want. Commercial fiction. I'm not saying that I write trash. But I want to write what people want to read. If you're not selling books, you're not doing a very good job.

"I have two small children who need to go to college and I'm just like anyone on Wall Street."

Easy Money is a column appearing every other week about life on the Street.

Previous Easy Money Columns

Wall Street's Version of an Air Force Base

(6/2)

. Walking purposefully in high heels, one of the women, in a carefully tailored mauve pantsuit, approached the restaurant's hostess. "Is this," she asked, "where the Wall Street guys are?"

The Cult of Bartiromo Keeps Pace with Her Purview

(6/30)

. Maria Bartiromo's attractive face -- indeed, one of the only female faces the male-dominated securities industry sees every day -- has made this 29-year-old from Brooklyn into "the Sharon Stone of Wall Street."

When We Were Kings -- At Least at the Barbershop.

(6/2)

. "Wall Street losing dough on every share; they're blaming it on longer hair."

Ellen Comes Out on Television; It'd Be a Tougher Trick on Wall Street

(4/30)

. On much of Wall Street, still, people can be openly gay only at risk to their careers. And in one ugly case, suspicions about an employee's sexuality allegedly led to invidious harassment.

Life and Death on the NYSE Floor

(4/7)

. Patrick "Paddy" Grieve died where he spent the last 25 years working: on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

A Firm That Bares All to Professional Investors

(3/24)

. These days, Rebecca Marabito's business is, well, taking off. She is the CEO of Splash! Entertainment, a Manhattan-based concern that provides strippers for the men of Wall Street.

Casting CNBC: The Movie

(3/10)

.

TheStreet.com

fulfills the screaming need for a movie version of Wall Street's TV obsession.

This story was orginally published August 11, 1997