‘419’ by Will Ferguson

419

Fiction – hardcover; Viking Books; 399 pages; 2012.

For me, the best kind of literature is the kind that makes you look at something afresh or takes you to a location (or time in history) that you would never normally visit. Will Ferguson’s 419 is that kind of literature.

In short, it is about a Canadian man who gets stung by a Nigerian email scam, but it is also about the cultural and financial disparity between Africa and the West. It is a heady mix of adventure story, crime fiction and global thriller — albeit with a distinctive 21st century twist.

Caught in a web of deception

This rather ambitious novel has multiple storylines and a wide cast of characters. The central thread revolves around the death of Henry Curtis, a retired school teacher now working as a part-time watchman, who dies in an unusual traffic accident: his car, travelling at very high speeds, runs off the road one night and tumbles into a snowy ravine underneath a bridge. Initially, it is thought he may have hit a patch of black ice, but later, when it is revealed that his car made two attempts to leave the road, his death is chalked up as suicide.

When the home he shares with his wife — also a retired school teacher — is repossessed by the bank, it appears that Mr Curtis had numerous, and hefty, financial debts. He had, rather naively, been taken in my an email scam (known in Nigeria as “419” after the criminal code which makes this kind of activity illegal), the type most of us would ignore or delete if they made their way through our SPAM filter.

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 decision 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-backed criminals…

His two adult children — Warren and Laura — take his death and the impending loss of the family home in different ways. Warren, a married man with children, is prone to loud outbursts, all air and fury, while Laura, a single woman who makes her living as a copy editor, decides to beat the scammers at their own game.

Multiple storylines

In a second storyline, we meet the scammer — Winston — who runs his one-man operation out of a cyber cafe in Lagos. Winston is cleverer than most — he’s figured out that it pays to choose your targets carefully and “once hooked, it became a matter of playing them, of reeling in the line, overcoming their initial resistance, giving them slack at certain times, pulling taut at others”. But Winston is playing a dangerous game, because the world of cyberscamming is deftly controlled by street-gang syndicates who don’t appreciate those who go it alone.

A third storyline introduces Nnamdi, an innocent boy from a fishing village in the Niger Delta, who becomes unwittingly tied up with a Nigerian “mafia” boss who runs many of these internet scams. But when we first meet Nnamdi, he is working on Bonny Island — the terminus of the Trans-Niger Pipeline at the mouth of the Delta — where he “took motors apart and put them back together. He oiled bearings, cleaned cogs, replaced timing belts”. His situation is in stark contrast to the rest of his peers, many of whom are blowing up pipelines and kidnapping Western employees to get the message across that the global oil corporations are not welcome in the Delta.

Later, he meets and rescues a pregnant woman, who is from the Sahel “from a clan rumoured to carry Arabian blood in their veins”. This storyline — perhaps the weakest of the multiple ones that Ferguson juggles in choppy, sometimes staccato fashion — serves to show us how innocent, well-meaning people, such as Nmadi, can get caught up in events bigger than themselves. And it also shows us how corruption permeates through almost every facet of Nigerian life.

Ambitious novel

From my description above, it’s pretty clear that 419 is a big, sprawling novel, filled with all kinds of social, political and economic messages about the state of the world today.

It’s by no means a perfect novel — sometimes it feels like facts, especially the ways in which these “419 scams” work are being shoe-horned in, and it can never seem to work out its mind whether it’s a literary novel, a travel adventure or a sociopolitical thriller. It also experiments with style — sometimes the chapters are only several paragraphs long, and the section about Nnamdi could almost be extracted as a stand alone novella — not always successfully.

But, on the whole, this is a gripping read, one that feels authentic and edgy. It takes a big picture view and marries a cracking good plot with finely crafted prose and believable characters. And I suspect it would make a brilliant film, not least because of Ferguson’s eye for detail and the visual quality of his writing.

Of the three Giller Prize shortlisted novels I have reviewed so far, I would be more than happy to see this one win it.

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17 thoughts on “‘419’ by Will Ferguson

  1. I haven’t read this (and I’m not likely to), but I have read his Japanese travel book ‘Hokkaido Highway Blues’ a few times – excellent book 🙂

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  2. Interesting! When this one first appeared at the start of the year, neither the description nor the couple of reviews I had read of it convinced me that it was worth getting. My thinking was I had read one novel about 419ers (Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s ‘I Do Not Come To You By Chance’) a few years ago and had no particular interest in reading another. This assumption was confirmed when over the following months I read two short stories about scammers (by Petina Gappah and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie respectively) neither of which – though each is well-written – delivered anything new or unexpected. Plot-wise, Ferguson’s book doesn’t sound like it adds anything new either, and yet since its Giller listing I keep seeing very favourable reviews of it and find myself intrigued. I don’t think I’ll be ordering it from Canada, but if a UK edition appears I may well give it a go.

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  3. From his bio on his website, I see he lived in Japan for five years, and I’ve got a sneaking feeling his wife might be Japanese given the names of their children (Genki and Yuki).

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  4. I’ve never read anything about 419ers before, so this felt very fresh and new to me, and has certainly made me view my SPAM box in a much different light. I often toy with the idea of replying to them, if only to wind the sender up, but having read this book I don’t think I will risk the danger!
    Aside from the email scam angle, you might like the subsidiary plot about Nnamdi, because it’s essentially about how the people of the Delta have to make a decision: do they fight the oil multinationals, ignore them or join them? It’s certainly made me more interested in finding out more about this aspect of Nigerian life. I must dig out Helon Habila’s “Oil on Water” which I bought last year, which is set on the Niger Delta and is about two journalists hired to find a kidnapped oil engineer.

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  5. ahh.. so this is the same person who wrote: ‘Hokkaido Highway Blues’? I definitely want to read this, too bad my library hasn’t stock this up yet! A bit annoyed with the slowness of local libraries, budget issue perhaps?
    I used to get one of those spam email before. It’s definitely the world’s most best known spam. I know of someone who fell for it, unfortunately.

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  6. Hi JoV, don’t be too harsh on your library — I should have pointed out in my review that this book is ONLY available in Canada. I’m sure it will get published in the UK at some point, but it could be a long wait — there’s no date listed on Amazon as yet.

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  7. Interesting – having just read Kevin’s review of it. He’s not so keen is he. I think I now know enough about the book and don’t think it will be number one on my “to be read” list, but at least I know what its about now!

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  8. I quite enjoyed this one, but hadn’t clocked it was going to be a socio-political thriller. I quite like big novels with global themes, so this one appealed. I think Kevin and I probably got different things out of it. I’d be happy to see this one take the prize, actually, if only because it’s so much more ambitious than anything else on the shortlist.

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  9. I’m always surprised that people fall for those scams. When I worked on a bird magazine, there was a scam going around with people offering to sell rare and exotic birds from Africa to people in the UK (where it is illegal to import them) and quite a few of our readers fell for it. I saw a lot of the emails — and they would include dodgy looking pictures of birds that were completely the wrong species, and all the species (and common) names would be spelt incorrectly etc. But if people want an African grey parrot for what they think is a cheap price they will do anything to get it… However, if it sounds too good to be true… it probably is!

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  10. One of the aspects of this novel that I enjoyed, and more so after I’d finished than while I was reading (which happens sometimes, doesn’t it), was the sense that there were a lot of interconnections that weren’t immediately obvious.
    Sometimes it’s clear: the central motif of the four-one-nine email with the myriad of senders/recipients…how much more interconnected could that be?!
    But sometimes it is more subtle. Like the question of tracks. The novel begins with the tire tracks, there is the question of tracking the route that the emails take, and there is the track travelled by the two men across the desert with their cargo. And where does truthfulness/scamming fit into each of these scenarios?
    I was expecting to enjoy this one, but I wasn’t expecting it to linger as much as it has!

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  11. I have just looked this up and you can buy it on Amazon… for £42.95 so I think I might just wait until it comes out in the UK though it is one I definitely want to read. Hopefully its recent win will get its publication speeded up.
    Like you I do often wonder how people can fall for these 419ers (a term I didn’t know and will now use more often and feel a bit clever ha) as they always seem so obvious. That said one of the Ferdinand van Schriach stories is about this in his first collection, or second (you can get them in one volume now)was about the same thing and showed you how it can actually be done. All his short fictions are based on real events.
    The most random 419er I ever had was from a Russian man who said if I didn’t buy some viagra off him right now he would be killed by the mafia. Bizarre. I didn’t and did worry briefly…

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