A Calculated Risk is a delightful computer caper novel and satire on the financial industry by Katherine Neville, author of The Eight, who knows that world very well, since she is a former vice-president of the Bank of America. She wrote this novel in the 1980s and it was published in 1992, but it does not seem dated at all. In fact, Neville anticipated many of the situations that led to the financial crisis of 2008. Of course, financial shenanigans have always been around, so in this sense A Calculated Risk will never seem dated. The technology used to commit the theft in the novel may be out of date, but the situations, never.
The heroine is Verity Banks, who, like Neville herself, is formerly a computer expert in New York and now a vice-president of the Bank of the World in San Francisco (clearly based on the Bank of America), in charge of electronic funds transfer. When her boss turns down her proposal for a tighter security system at the bank and blackballs her for a job at the Federal Reserve, Verity decides to break through security and steal electronic payments to show her boss how easy it is to do. She intends to hide the money in fake accounts set up in the names of wealthy members of an exclusive men’s club, and then put it back in the bank. But Verity's former mentor, Dr. Zoltan Tor, ups the ante. He challenges her to steal a billion dollars, invest it to earn thirty million dollars in three months, and then put the billion dollars back before anyone notices. Tor even gives Verity an advantage: she can use a computer, but he can not. Whoever steals a billion dollars more quickly wins the bet. If Verity wins, Tor will get her the job at the Federal Reserve that she wanted. If Tor wins, Verity will come to New York to work for him.
Verity and her team of technicians use a computer named Charles Babbage to help them steal electronic payments from the Bank of the World. The computer is a delight, and “he” is an actual character in the book. He seems almost human at times. Meanwhile, Tor comes up with a plan to steal bonds from the stock exchange and replace them with fakes. He enlists the help of Verity’s friend Georgian, a commercial photographer, to make expert forgeries. Georgian and her mother Lelia, a Russian baroness, are two of the most delightful characters in the book. They purchase an island in the Aegean in Lelia’s name and set it up as a tax haven. But the greedy, corrupt bankers at the Bank of the World, including Verity's boss Kiwi and his boss, Lawrence, have a scheme of their own, which Verity and Tor had not counted on. Will Verity, Tor, and their friends be able to defeat them in time?
Not only is A Calculated Risk an excellent caper novel, but it is a wonderful romance, too. Verity and Tor are clearly attracted to each other, even though Verity does not realize it at first. She claims to have left New York because Tor was trying to control her life, but really she was trying to deny her feelings for him. When they reconnect, sparks fly. The banter between the two of them is one of the best parts of the novel. And there are some steamy love scenes that will appeal to romance fans.
As always with Neville, A Calculated Risk contains a historical element, even though here it is entirely subordinate to the main plot. At the beginning of each section of the book, brief chapters tell the story of the rise of the Rothschild banking dynasty during the Napoleonic Wars, and how they made their fortune financing Wellington’s armies. These scenes provide a contrast between the world of banking in the past and the present. As Tor tells Verity, the Rothschilds might have been ruthless, but they were never corrupt, in contrast to Verity’s bosses. Fans of The Eight, which is about a quest for a magical chess set, will appreciate a scene with a chess game, which, as Neville has explained, is based on an actual chess game that was played during the Rothschilds’ time.
A Calculated Risk is shorter and lighter in tone than Neville’s other novels, but it is the most humorous of her books, and it is an absolute delight. I highly recommend it not only to fans of her other novels but to anyone who enjoys a great thriller.
A Calculated Risk is available from the Browsing Collection of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.