419? For North Americans, it's most familiar as the area code for northern Ohio, Toledo and its suburbs. For Nigerians in Nigeria? Not so much.
In Will Ferguson's 419, four one nine refers to "the section in the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with obtaining money or goods under false pretences. Any kind of fraud really," an investigator explains to Laura, the grief-stricken daughter of Henry Curtis, a retired Alberta schoolteacher who emptied bank accounts, remortgaged the family home and maxed out credit cards before dying in a suspicious car crash that has left Laura's mother destitute.
Laura is dumbfounded as Detectives Saul and Brisebois, polite, articulate members of the Calgary Police Commission, go through files that the Economic Crime Unit retrieved from her father's hard drive and explain precisely how Curtis was trolled, snared and ruined by a WiFi-empowered Lagos "businessman."
"Nigerians have a wry sense of humour," Detective Saul continues. "Four one nine now refers to any sort of ruse. … A boy who tries to hide his report card. … Girls who have a boyfriend on the side. … They've got pop songs … that celebrate the wiles of the 419ers. … But don't be fooled: 419 is a business. … It's bigger than Nigeria; it's as old as sin. As old as desire."
Ferguson's third novel performs a public service by providing an "autopsy" of a familiar Nigerian e-mail scam and its typical victim – "Average loss in a 419 scam is somewhere to the tune of $250,000. … The going rate for dreams, apparently" – as well as a cautionary tale for those like Laura, who seek revenge by attempting to scam the scammer.
But 419 is more than a drugstore-rack police procedural: It's a deeply ironic, thoroughly engaged politico-philosophical thriller from a comic writer best known for winning a trio of Leacock Awards for Happiness™ (2002), Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw (2008) and Beyond Belfast (2010).
In 419, Ferguson seriously questions how much sympathy we should have for fellow North Americans naive enough to believe that even if they gain some portion of the windfalls promised by 419ers, they will escape prosecution by our own governments for money laundering? Just how jejune are the financial woes and emotional traumas of avaricious tax-dodgers compared with those of anyone living as honourably as possible in a part of Africa that is rapidly becoming the most dangerous place on Earth, because of multinational oil interests?
Ferguson puts flesh on the bare bones of this question of distributive versus retributive justice by interweaving the story of Laura Curtis and her pursuit of the one identifiable man who scammed her father – Winston, a hustler of some education, much ambition and no future – with the stories of Amina, who falls into Nnamdi's care before both are dropped into Laura's life as potential guardians or assassins, with little choice in what role they will have thrust upon them.
Until these lives collide, Ferguson creates four distinct narratives.
A freelance copy editor working from home, Laura lives in the bubble of a Calgary high-rise attached to a mall that meets her every need and from which vengeance propels her to Nigeria.
Winston dreams big dreams of life in the West while conjuring fictitious identities, false financial predicaments, fake documentation for e-mail recipients he expects never to meet.
Amina's story is the solitary journey of a pregnant woman seeking water, food and anonymity day by day as she flees her tribal ties to northern cattle herders for life as a stall-keeper in some southern city's marketplace.
Nnamdi's tale is the most complicated: He's a fisherman's son from the Niger Delta who works as a "mechanic" in the black market as he helps others drain and transport oil from ruptured pipelines within an ecosystem ravaged by oil spills and patrolled by rival factions of "protectors" as Nigeria teeters on the edge of civil war.
Until Ferguson's characters move toward inevitable confrontations in Lagos, 419 suffers some drag. But from roughly page 187 on, you won't sleep until you finish, and then rest won't come easily. Riveting. Provocative.
Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof's most recent book is Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984.