Chilling thriller and lyrical narrative brings scamming to life


Will Ferguson

Head Zeus

Review: Jennifer Crocker

We’ve all had them, that tantalising email that tells a sad story about a person who is the heir to a great fortune, but can’t access it without the intervention of a third party to clear the funds. Known as 419 scams, they seek to get credulous individuals to part with their banking details and to start sending money to the scammers in order to free up a huge chunk of the fortune for their trouble.

While many people laugh them off, and they are widely known to be scams, every year ordinary people fall for them, and get burned.

In 419 Will Ferguson has put together a complex narrative that tells the tale of two countries, sedate Canada and the sometimes wild frontier of Nigeria. It starts with a death. Laura’s father, a dependable family man, is involved in a fatal single-car collision and dies in the midst of an icy storm. He leaves behind him his bewildered wife, son, and daughter Laura.

The story shifts rapidly to Laura arriving in Lagos on a two-day trip to find out the truth about what it was that caused her father’s death. She is treading on dangerous ground, but she has no idea how complex the situation is.

The man she is tracking is the man who has scammed her father, and who she believes to be the agent of his death.

All of this could disintegrate into a story about how some poor bloke has been ripped off by an African criminal, but in the hands of Ferguson it becomes a rich story about the real Nigeria, or as close as one can get to a country that has the distinction of having turned out some of the world’s finest authors and academics, and given it one of the biggest fraud scams in the world.

Because, as we find through the Nigerian section of the narrative (which is by far the most lengthy and complex), Nigeria is riddled with its own agony, an agony that is caused by Western greed for oil and the exploitation of the oil rich areas.

Through 419 the reader is taken into the deep story of oil exploitation in Nigeria by foreign-owned companies and the devastation that it has brought to a country that was already, as with so many African countries a nation composed not so much of nationhood or hegemony, but rather by the capricious whims of the pencils and machinations of colonial powers drawing lines on maps.

This historical fact allows Ferguson to introduce two wonderful characters: a young man who prospers initially from the discovery of oil near his village, and a young woman who is walking away from shame, alone and pregnant – an almost chimeric character who will draw the young man, Laura and her father’s scammer into a devilish dance of narrative and plot.

The briefer counter-narrative, set in Laura’s home country, gives a rich background to how powerless law enforcement agencies are to stop 419 scams. The police are sympathetic but make it very clear that there is no way that the case will ever be followed up. The reason for this is because the clever 419 guys are professionals. And this is a chilling part of the book, how the real professionals get to know their prey and draw them in. For the real deal guys – not the yahoo boys, as the amateurs are known – there is an art and a craft involved. By the time they have reeled in a victim they will know so much about them that a fine and sticky web will have been spun around their lives, causing them to act, yes out of greed, but also out of fear as the web becomes more dense. Of course there are also the people at the top who control this “industry”, and of course these are very dangerous people indeed.

By going to Nigeria to attempt to get back her father’s money Laura is the figure who draws the threads of the 419 story together, and yet she also is a somewhat undrawn character, rather like the young woman who is walking and walking, until she meets Winston the young man from the village that has been plundered by the oil tycoons and then left to rot as soon as there was any risk to them.

This is both a chilling thriller and a lyrical narrative about the nature of evil, and how good people can become tangled up in it. There is no hysteria here, and a welcome and readable telling of the story of both the 419 scam and the horrors that plague Nigeria because of its oil. It’s a story told with a refreshingly un-Western approach – if that is possible for a North American writer, and it almost always is for Ferguson – about Nigeria. That he manages to weave through a story about facts a human narrative that operates on many levels makes this a wonderful read, and an important book. 419 is a fine exposition of the collision between two worlds, and the horrors of unintended consequences.

  • This story first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014

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