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Death, Sex And Anger At The Financial System: Meet The Man Who Wrote Real Estate’s Thriller Novel

Former Schroders head-turned-novelist Neil Turner

On retiring from the real estate industry, most senior executives find a hobby: Golf would be the stereotype, maybe sailing, all while maintaining a few lucrative directorships. Not so Schroders’ Neil Turner.

Turner challenged himself to write a novel and created a thriller packed with murder, blackmail, sex and an angry but nuanced portrayal of the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, and the role real estate played in that economic calamity. 

Turner is the former head of indirect property investment at Schroders, one of London’s oldest fund management houses, which today has £700B in assets under management, £16.5B of which is in real estate.

Turner’s first novel, Pass the Parcel, was published 10 December by Austin Macauley Publishers. It is a wide-ranging book set between 2005 and 2009, with a cast of characters spanning the globe, all linked in some way to the worlds of property or global finance. In the UK there is the greedy and lascivious property banker puffing up his company’s share price; the friend of his wife who becomes involved in a blackmail plot; and the investor who finds a bank has stolen his brother’s property empire from him when the market turned.

In the U.S. there is an investment banking boss who becomes U.S. Treasury secretary after his success selling financial derivatives backed by subprime mortgages; the Mexican couple who were able to buy a house using one of those mortgages, but find their world crumbling when the financial crisis begins to unfold; and back in London, the reclusive hedge fund manager betting that subprime mortgages will fail, but questioning whether he is complicit in the misery the GFC inflicted on real people.

Turner had never written anything longer or more literary than a research report in his career, but he had always been a keen reader of canonical authors like Charles Dickens and psychological thriller writers like Erin Kelly and Louise Candlish. He decided to undertake the project after chatting to a friend who had written a novel, which triggered him to have a go himself. He went on multiple residential writing courses to hone his craft before setting out on a project he admitted was more difficult than he ever expected. 

What made Turner decide to write a thriller set in the world of property and finance? He cites as inspirations writers who have covered the causes and impacts of the financial crisis through both fiction and nonfiction, like John Lanchester or Big Short’s Michael Lewis, but wanted to bring an analysis of that period of recent history to a wider audience.

“In the fiction space, the people that go to the book club that I attend, they might not have read Meltdown (by journalist Paul Mason) or seen or read The Big Short,” Turner said. “And I’m still angry, to some extent, about what happened in the financial crisis. It wasn’t an accident, it was man-made, and there were some people behaving badly. I thought when you have characters behaving like that and you put them on the same page as the Mexican couple who were mis-sold their mortgage, you can really do something with that. 

“I wanted to put across to someone who wouldn’t read a financial book that yes, this is fiction, but it’s based on true events. And the events and characters lent themselves more to a thriller than a love story or any other genre.”

The anger stems from the fact that those most responsible for the financial crisis and the pain it caused were never held directly responsible. In the book there is a strand of plot mirroring the scandal around a regional division of collapsed bank HBOS, where individuals in the distressed loan management team were profiting personally from their clients’ financial turmoil.

But none of the investment bankers or mortgage lenders who created the sub-prime crisis are jailed, or even face much in the way of a financial penalty even though, in one scene, a U.S. senator exposes in forensic detail how banks knew that the financial derivatives they were selling to clients were likely to fail, an episode drawn from the real Congressional inquiry into the GFC. 

The cover of Pass the Parcel

In the book, the scene is nuanced: the investment banker-turned-Treasury secretary, Chuck Whitman, points out that the general public benefitted from subprime mortgages and no one was complaining when house prices were rising, fuelling a consumer spending boom.

For Turner, the blame lies more with the financial system that profited from selling these mortgages and subprime bonds.

“The congressional inquiry really angered me,” he said. “It really tore into Goldman Sachs, because it showed the banks were selling rubbish, and knew they were selling rubbish, because they were betting against it to fail, and you don’t need a Ph.D. in finance to understand that.

“Nobody was ever prosecuted criminally, but they knew what they were doing, and apart from a few hefty fines, they walked away.”

In real estate terms, Turner said, “you heard about what some investors and banks were doing, and you didn’t agree with it." The character of Andrew Longmire, who runs a specialist property lender, is a lightning rod for criticism of the industry. Well after it becomes apparent that property values are going to take a hit, he insists the bank carry on lending and is in denial that any of the loans it has made will go into default.

But he is also a means of exploring the insalubrious morality of the real estate industry in the run-up to the financial crisis. Turner takes us to Mipim, the annual real estate jamboree in Cannes in the south of France that is attended by more than 20,000 real estate professionals from across the world. 

One character turns up at the conference early in the morning, as the sun is rising, to find many of the delegates are still out drinking, with the streets needing to be hosed of vomit. The way that businessmen would openly procure prostitutes at the conference does not escape judgment.

Longmire is, sadly, based on a real property professional, who Turner declines to name and came across during the pre-crash boom years. 

“I met this guy socially, we were at Mipim at the same time, 2005 to around 2013 or 2014, but I didn’t know him then,” Turner said. “He took me into his office once, and underneath a blotter on his desk he showed me what he said was his favourite photograph. It was him on a boat at Mipim surrounded by about 20 girls, all of them topless. The way people acted at that time, I just don’t think property needed to be like that.”

Turner said his attitude to this excess, and the conflict that many in real estate felt at the time, himself included, is summed up when one of the characters, a fund manager called Joe, is perusing the people walking down Cannes’ seafront. He spots an old man in shorts and sandals, eyes closed, face pointed toward the sun. It is one of many moments of well-observed, poignant detail, the kind of detail perhaps someone who feels like a bit of an outsider might notice. That outsider stance has allowed him to shine a light on the property and financial sectors, the people who shaped them and the damage they once caused.  

“The contrast between him and the quintessential property spiv sat next to him reminded [Joe] McGrath of his own quandary: his heart and soul were every bit with the old man, but McGrath’s brain was hardwired — for the moment at least — for business and his next property deal.”