Corruption offers rich pickings for writers. It’s something that fascinates us and, if we’re honest, we worry could seduce us. Often, what keeps corruption contained is a lack of opportunity and the fact the risks outweigh the rewards – although sometimes the risk-takers are those eschewing corruption.
We British have always had a slightly superior attitude to corruption, seeing it as something endemic in other countries. We had the odd instance, such as the John Poulson scandal of the early 70s, which brought down some politicians, including the then home secretary; and the “sleaze” surrounding John Major’s government in the 90s included actual “brown envelopes”. But on the whole, we consoled ourselves that these were outliers.
Anyone looking closely could see this wasn’t true. It was rarely anything as grubby as cash bribes, but it existed. And, like all corruption, leaving it unpunished helped it spread. When I wrote the first of the Antonia Conti novels, A Long Shadow, in 2013, I believed most readers didn’t think we had a problem with corruption in the UK. Some early feedback I got from publishers and agents mentioned it was a bit “far-fetched”. By the time it came out last year, public opinion had changed.
1. It’s Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong
Wrong, an experienced Africa journalist, had a unique opportunity to understand Kenyan corruption when John Githongo came to stay in her London flat. Githongo was a high-profile journalist and outspoken critic of the corrupt regime of Daniel arap Moi who had been in power in Kenya for 24 years. When Mwai Kibaki beat him in 2002, it felt like a momentous change and was celebrated across Africa. Kibaki promised to end the corruption endemic under his predecessor, and he appointed Githongo to help. Within two years, Githongo had resigned and was in hiding in London. This account, which reads like a thriller, explains what happened.
2. Dark Money by Jane Mayer
A meticulously researched account of a 40-year campaign to subvert democracy in the US. A secretive group of ultra-wealthy US citizens, headed by the Koch brothers, decided they didn’t like being regulated. Not satisfied with having their people in office, they wanted government so weakened that it had no impact on their ability to make money. They were so successful that a man totally unsuited to running the country got elected in 2016. The problem was, he wasn’t their man. They were backing his rivals so he had no interest in working with them. In the end, they had such a grip on the right of the US political scene that their people ended up in positions of power in his administration. The shadowy organisations they set up have spread across the Atlantic and have a significant influence in the UK, especially since Brexit. This book gives you an introduction to their aims and why we should worry.
3. The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy by Michael Lewis
I recommend coming to this after you’ve read Dark Money. It looks at the chaotic transfer of power from Barack Obama to Donald Trump and explains the reasons the new regime seemed so unprepared for power and why so many people bankrolled by the Koch foundations ended up in powerful positions in the new administration. The only qualifications many of the appointees needed were loyalty to Trump and agreement with his beliefs. Not only were the people put in charge of the departments unsuitable, often, they were actively working against the branches they headed to benefit their business interests.
4. The Border by Don Winslow
The last instalment of a trilogy that charts 40 years of the “war on drugs”. Our guide is Art Keller, who has risen to the highest echelons of the DEA. These are the stories of the drug producers, smugglers, and distributors on one side and the drug enforcement agencies and the politicians who ostensibly control them on the other. Between them are the people caught up in a conflict they want no part of but can’t escape. Above these are the ruthless cartels that control the drug trade and buy off politicians and police officers. We’re shown the devastating impact this has on the lives of the innocent and not-so-innocent. Winslow brings the strands together with great skill.
5. Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security by Sarah Chayes
This book posits the premise that corruption isn’t a consequence of states breaking down, but is the reason for their collapse. Something which should cause us great concern. As well as taking an overview, the book illustrates how corruption affects people by using well-written, relatable accounts of corruption witnessed by the author. She also admits the mistakes she first made when establishing a non-profit in Afghanistan. In centuries past, “mirrors for princes” advised rulers to be available to the population so they can air grievances. The west, by relying on intermediaries when dealing with governments in developing countries, has ended up supporting corrupt regimes, turning the populations not only against the government, but the west. We’re helping turn the world into a more dangerous place.
6. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Augustus Melmotte arrives in Victorian London as a despised outsider. He is “not one of us” and rumours abound about the questionable source of his money. Despite this, some of the ruling class overlook these concerns, believing they’ll make a lot of money by associating with him. Trollope is good at dissecting the desires of his characters and the depths to which they’ll sink to realise them. Although written nearly 150 years ago, we can see Augustus Melmottes in our country today and some have even made it to the House of Lords.
7. Red Notice by Bill Browder
Unlike the other authors here, Browder is neither a novelist nor a reporter, but you wouldn’t know it from reading this pacy account. He managed a fund in Russia, with assets of $4.5bn, until he angered the oligarchs. His mistake, not turning a blind eye to the corruption he came across. He won a few skirmishes, but when he came across a huge tax fraud, they shut him down. He was exiled from Moscow, and the authorities tortured and killed his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Horrified and angry, Browder became an activist. Unable to bring the people responsible for Magnitsky’s death to justice in Russia, he campaigned to get the Magnitsky Act passed in the US. It led to government sanctions against the individuals involved in the murder. Other countries have passed further Magnitsky legislation.
8. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The tale of Thomas Cromwell’s ascent to the highest levels of corrupt Tudor England is a study in ruthless manipulation. In an era when a person’s titles and background determined their status, Cromwell, the runaway son of a brewer and blacksmith, had almost no capital. He had to rely on his intelligence, cunning and ability to manipulate people. The court of Henry VIII was a dangerous place. You needed the king’s indulgence to thrive and Cromwell found favour and rose to prominence. His attempts to keep on the good side of a capricious and dangerous monarch, while avoiding the attempts of the many enemies he’d made to undermine him, make for a fascinating study of how to wield power.
9. All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
This thrilling account of the Watergate scandal uncovers the story as it broke. The gradual trust that built up between the two initially suspicious Washington Post reporters enabled them to work together effectively. One aspect became clear early on: people were making very specific denials of accusations nobody had yet made. A sure sign they had something to hide. It amazed me how easily they got people to talk to them as they uncovered the trail of money and the involvement of the CIA in the burglary and cover-up. In the end, the trail led them to the most powerful man in the US.
10. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
This first of Larsson’s hit thrillers introduces us to Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, an unconventional investigator. A judge jails Blomkvist because of a story he wrote about a corrupt businessman and his magazine is about to go under. His saviour is a powerful businessman who wants him to investigate a family secret. The unlikely alliance between Salander and Blomkvist focuses this story of corruption and aberrant appetites.