By Will Ferguson
Viking, 399 pp.
Even if you employ a top-grade spam filter, invariably a few of those strange, cryptic messages imploring you to send money overseas have slipped through your net. Most of us summarily delete them, but for Calgary author Will Ferguson, these cyber-scams provided the jumping off point for a new novel.
His latest book, 419, is named after a type of online fraud that originated in Nigeria and has since spread across the world. Once a bulk, automated spam operation, 419ers have grown sophisticated, gathering information on individuals — which is, of course, increasingly easy to access as we forgo our privacy and offer up every little detail of our lives — and then targeting them with appeals to send funds (which they will, of course, get back with the promise of a big return on their investment), usually to aid some sort of humanitarian mission — i.e. smuggling a prisoner of conscience away from danger imposed by some hostile regime.
Ferguson’s idea to use the scam as the centre point of his story, however, didn’t originate in his inbox, but while doing research for his previous novel, Spanish Fly, a book about con men. While reading up on the subject, he came across a mention of how 419s could be traced back to the “Spanish Prisoner” con that followed after the Armada sailed against England in the 1500s
“A lot of noblemen drowned or died or disappeared and letters began to circulate, saying ‘I am the daughter of an imprisoned English nobleman sitting in a Spanish prison and I just need a small advance fee to bribe the guards and you will be rewarded handsomely,” explains Ferguson. “And people fell for it. For 500 years people have been falling for it. The Nigerian genius was to update it for the Internet age. That’s when I thought, wow, we’re really dealing with human nature, not technology.”
Ferguson’s story centres on a Calgary family dealing with the aftermath of their father falling for a 419, burning through their savings and then committing suicide. Unfortunately, such a scenario isn’t purely the product of a fertile mind,
“What surprised me when I researched it — and this is a conservative estimate — is that $100 million gets sucked out of Canada every year,” says Ferguson, before mentioning one case in particular that caught his notice. “In Saskatoon, a financial planner ended up embezzling $190,000 from his company pension and ended up killing himself.”
In 419, the dead man’s daughter ends up travelling to Nigeria to investigate those who brought about her father’s downfall, but while the book may be gripping, calling it a straight-ahead thriller would be doing it a disservice. It’s a multifaceted look at the effects of globalization, including a fascinating subplot dealing with the exploitation and destruction of the Niger Delta by foreign oil companies.
“You start off the book thinking, ‘here is this white woman showing up these criminals in Africa,’” says Ferguson. “As the story goes on, I’m hoping readers will realize that there are whole other stories they weren’t aware of, and our concerns are the least of their worries.
“I wanted to draw the direct parallel between what’s happening in the Tar Sands and what’s happening in the Niger delta,” he adds.
On that note, Ferguson discusses misconceptions of our energy-rich province as a conscienceless place, especially in light of all the dialogue happening in the arts here, from theatre productions to art installations to literary works such as his own that grapple with the slippery subject of the repercussions of big oil.
“I can’t think of any other city, except for maybe Ottawa, where the perception of it is so removed from the reality,” he says. “It’s a young city, and part of being young is questioning things hard.”