In G.B. Gordon’s By the Book, a young accountant becomes a target when he stumbles across a money laundering operation, and ends up in the protective custody of a gorgeous FBI agent. Although I suspect some of the procedural elements are off, that’s not unusual for the genre; many movies and TV shows condense or make stuff up in order to enhance the drama, and I suppose the degree to which you enjoy – or don’t – this story will depend on your knowledge of such things and how far you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. I found the premise a bit wobbly, but on the whole By the Book is a quick and entertaining read.
Twenty-five-year-old Bennett Coyne works for a successful import/export company as a junior accountant. He’s been there for about six months and it’s his first real job, so he’s keen to prove himself; he’s scrupulous and hard-working, and when he comes across a serious accounting error, alarm bells start ringing. There is more money in the bank than there should be – a LOT more – and he immediately takes the problem to his boss, who doesn’t seem to be at all bothered by it and tells Ben to leave it with him. Ben worries afterwards – it’s as likely Henderson will throw Ben under the bus as give him the credit for finding the discrepancy – and he spends the rest of the week on tenterhooks, wondering if he’s going to be shown the door. The call comes last thing on Friday afternoon – but instead of being invited in to the office for a discussion, Henderson gives Ben a list of files he wants from storage and tells him to bring them down to his car in the garage. Perplexed, Ben does as asked – only to find his boss face down in a pool of blood next to his car.
Having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, FBI Special Agent Nick Marshall worked hard to prove himself and is damn good at his job, but despite all that, he’s been unable to shake the trust-fund-baby/playboy label… and has given up trying. It’s not something that’s bothered him all that much until recently; it must be turning forty that’s given him a fit of the glooms. He’s relieved when his boss calls him away from the birthday party he most definitely did NOT want to tell him that he’s just received word of a homicide that took place the day before in which the bullet came from the same gun used in an execution-style murder from six years earlier that has never been solved. Intrigued, Nick goes to interview the guy who found the body.
From here, the story proceeds along expected lines; it’s somewhat formulaic, but the formula works, and the pairing of an FBI agent with someone outside law enforcement is a refreshing change. The investigation held my interest and the author does a good job of building the tension and keeping things moving as Ben decides to do some digging of his own and then becomes a target of whoever is behind the murder and the money-laundering scheme he’s uncovered. At times, he seems to be following moves from the Amateur Sleuth Handbook; I got a bit annoyed with him for holding back important information and being careless of his own safety, for instance – but I liked his determination to get to the truth. Nick is a bit more developed as a character; he’s fifteen years older than Ben (I found it odd that the age difference isn’t mentioned once) and privileged, and would seem to have it all worked out, but really he’s a bit of a mess. He’s snarky and flirtatious, but can also be standoffish and snippy, usually when he’s feeling vulnerable or like he’s on the back foot – which is how he feels around Ben a lot of the time. The two of them are attracted to each other from the get go even though Nick doesn’t want to be, recognising that there’s something about Ben that could spell big trouble for him and his carefree lifestyle. The romance is secondary to the suspense plot and is a bit underdeveloped, but there’s enough chemistry and interaction between Nick and Ben to keep it bubbling along to a firm HFN. I liked the author’s decision not to have the pair become imtimately involved until after the case is concluded; so often in stories of this type, the LEO and the witness begin a relationship during the investigation, which must surely be a conflict of interest or something that could ultimately be damaging to the case.
There are a couple of great secondary characters in the story. Duncan Reid, Nick’s partner, is a great foil for him, and George, his financial adviser, best friend and next-door neighbour is da bomb – she has his number and doesn’t let him get away with anything.
As I said at the outset, procedural dramas are often inaccurate when it comes to the actual procedure and I can mostly go with the flow on that, provided there’s nothing so obviously wrong that it takes me out of the story. But there are other things that did bother me here, the main one being – how come Ben was the only one who discovered the accounting error? When I mentioned this to the accountant in the family, she said that was plausible depending on circumstances – it’s the fact there’s such a large sum sitting unnoticed in the bank account that is the real issue! Also problematic – the fact that Ben apparently takes his own laptop to the office and uses it for work. I had to stop reading and go back to make sure I’d read that correctly; surely that’s a massive no-no? (It is here in the UK). Ben is also given a backstory that feels slightly superfluous, and his characterisation is inconsistent; he feels like a different person at the end of the book to the one we first met. I didn’t like his propensity for nicknames; almost every time he thinks of Nick, it’s as “Agent something” – Agent Prince Charming. Agent Know-it-All. Agent Suit Porn. Agent Dark-and-Handsome… The first few times it was amusing, then it just came off as contrived and gimmicky.
Then there’s the big question I was left with at the end – what happened to the connection between Henderson’s murder and the one six years earlier? That thread is forgotten never to be seen again – although this is the first in a series, so perhaps it will be picked up later? But it that’s the case, there’s no real groundwork for that here.
The thing is, this ended up being one of those times where a book worked for me in spite of its faults. The story is well-paced, the writing is accomplished and very readable, and I liked the characters (in spite of Ben’s coming a bit close to TSTL once or twice). By the Book is the first in the Follow the Money series and I liked it enough to be interested in reading the next instalment when it comes out.
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