In the age of social media it is tough to read long form works. Fiction taunts you on your smartphone every second, it is delicious, this living, and the world of Donald Trump makes it doubly exciting if you are not concerned that our world is careening from a benign farce, to a burning hell in a handbasket. The brain and the eyes are getting used to a gentrification – an aversion to long essays and books and a preference for works that are trapped within the world of Twitter’s 140 characters and the communal narcissism of Facebook and her cousins. So the other day, fighting a losing battle with my addiction to social media, I picked up a copy of The Shadow List, Todd Moss’s new book, published by Penguin Random House. You will be proud of me, I fought my social media induced ADHD issues, hung tight with the book, and the book rewarded my staying power by letting me fall in love with it. You will love the book.
What is The Shadow List all about? Who is Todd Moss? Great questions; there is a good profile of Moss here in the Washington Post. He has also written a piece here explaining the method behind his literary madness. A former US deputy assistant secretary of state with expertise in West Africa, Moss is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC. He has parlayed his extensive experience as a diplomat into writing fiction that threatens to birth a genre – diplomatic thriller or diplo-thriller. With this book, Moss now has a running series of four books of fiction involving the fictional character Judd Ryker: The Golden Hour (starring Mali), Minute Zero (inspired by events in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe), Ghosts of Havana, and now, The Shadow List (showcasing Nigeria). It is a brilliant concept, attempting to break down the arcana of sprawling bureaucracies and global diplomatic intrigue into engaging fiction.
So how did the serial protagonist Judd Ryker do in The Shadow List? I think he and his wife, Jessica Ryker acquitted themselves admirably. It is a busy little book, Judd Ryker, the main character sets out to confront Chinese expansionist ambitions in capturing the world’s energy (crude oil) market. He soon gets side-tracked into other plots that involve Nigeria’s crude oil market (and its corruption) the encroaching Chinese influence in Nigeria, kidnappings, Nigeria’s politics; drama, corruption, the popular or notorious Nigerian “419” scam, Russian gangs, etc. It is a sprawling plot of subplots that somehow trap an army of colorful characters including his wife, CIA agent, Jessica Ryker.
If you want to wrap your head around American foreign policy interests, especially with respect to African nations like Nigeria and the spaghetti webs of America’s government agencies and her relationships with other superpowers, this is a great book to start with. Moss knows a lot about our worlds and it shows. Life in the US state department can be quite shadowy and one quickly learns that corruption is not a word unique to just African and Latino nations; there is a sense in which America probably inspired that pejorative.
In The Shadow List, Moss’s fiction is loosely based on the truth, there is a character loosely patterned after the corrupt and disgraced congressman William Jefferson, and there is one that is a thinly veiled portrait of Nigeria’s once respected crime fighter, former chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nuhu Ribadu. Moss is obviously fond of Ribadu, indeed his famous quote “When you fight corruption, it fights back!” is in the book. It is a respectful look from the outside into Nigeria, there are even thinking Nigerians with the sophistication that you will hardly find in the works of African fiction. Nigeria comes across as gritty and corrupt, a place where relationships and individuals attempt to do what robust structures and systems do in thriving countries. Nigeria struts its stuff with attitude as Moss deploys his most colorful prose, dips his ink into pidgin English and re-introduces the world to Nigerian cuisine like jollof rice and egusi soup. More importantly, The Shadow List is a rigorous study of the 419 scam phenomenon, the research is quite impressive. The book’s tempo really picks up exactly half-way into the book and this reader begins to imagine it as an action-packed movie.
The book’s strength is in its attention to substance; it manages to inform and entertain the reader. It is interesting that the book, a commentary on corruption and America’s traditional anxieties around protecting oil reserves at home and abroad is coming out in September, in the age of Trump and all his shenanigans, at a time also when America is less interested in external reserves of oil since it is almost now self-sufficient in terms of energy resources. The book also makes the point to this Nigerian reader that the real restructuring of Nigeria would be one that devolves power and resources away from the powerful center to the satellites, and creates robust sustainable structures of governance and accountability, if she is to thrive – and be respected and relevant in the global community.
Moss is a good writer and the Judd Ryker series is a great concept. You will need to be patient, the book takes its time getting to a brisk pace as Moss methodically builds plots upon too many plots and subplots – often using clinical prose that belongs in a government memorandum. This is a problem in the age of social media. Nigerians will cringe at Moss’s version of Pidgin English, it is adorably atrocious, but the Western reader will appreciate it because it is adapted for their benefit. The Shadow List does sometimes come across as a giant nod to American exceptionalism, that notion that in the end America is good and she will triumph over the other’s evil. The book is ponderous at first, but hang in there long enough and you will be rewarded with a good thriller. Do you know the origin of the term “shadow list”? You will have to read the book, I don’t do spoilers. Yes, I recommend the book. Absolutely.