419 is the latest offering by Calgary author Will Ferguson. While better known for his travelogues and humorous writing, this book demonstrates Ferguson's aplomb at writing political thrillers. 419 is a captivating read, hitting the sweet spot between a book you can't put down while pausing just long enough to explore bigger themes.
419 is a book that excels at weaving multiple dimensions around a single event. It opens with an apparent suicide by a Calgary man, Henry, and it is quickly revealed that he had lost a significant amount of money in one of the infamous Nigerian internet scams (referred to in the Nigerian penal code as 419, hence the title of the book). This scam is explored from multiple perspectives - including the daughter of the deceased man, the Nigerian man who perpetrates the scam, and the crime boss whose gang runs the internet scammers. Through the book's most compelling character, Nnamdi, we learn the back-story of the wealth, ethnic strife, and greed created by exploitation of Niger Delta oil wealth that literally fuels these interconnections.
The strength of this book lies in the detail with which Ferguson infuses the world he creates. His talents as a travel writer are on full display - the histories, landscapes, colours, sounds, and dialects of different regions in Nigeria are richly described without bogging down the accelerating plot. By contrast, the characters - while compelling - sometimes appear not quite fully developed, almost as in a fable or proverb. While this helps to clarify some of the book's main themes and decision points, it also leads to a few actions that don't quite seem credible without further elaboration.
Nevertheless, this was a highly enjoyable read that teaches a lot about contemporary Nigerian society and conflict. It also gives some valuable insights into what fuels human greed and the devastating, often far-reaching consequences it has on people's lives.