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Economic Espionage and Waging War on “The Dark Wizard”

The Big Thrill Interviews New York Times Bestselling Author Graham Moore


By Susan Goldenberg


Bestselling author Graham Moore enthrallingly pioneers the economic thriller in his fast-paced THE WEALTH OF SHADOWS being published this month by Random House. As the subtitle says, “Money is a dangerous weapon.” The novel thrillingly brings to light a hitherto unheralded, real-life, and successful American clandestine operation. The small team’s job? Crush Nazi Germany’s wealth. This was “very important,” as Graham says, in the Allies winning the Second World War. “There’d been trade sanctions between countries before but nothing on this level of economic warfare.”

In less capable hands, this story might have been an economic treatise for eggheads. But the triple-talented—novelist, screenwriter, director—Graham lives up to his much-praised track record for transmuting the “serious” into the readily understandable, relatable, exciting, and entertaining. His screenplay of The Imitation Game, for which he won an Academy Award in February 2015, pulsated with tension about codebreaking via advanced mathematics. His bestselling novel The Last Days of Night (2016) was a nail-biting drama about the competition to be the first to produce an electric light bulb.

The title THE WEALTH OF SHADOWS is a tip of the hat to both the landmark 1776 economic tome The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith—a perennial in economic courses—and the shadows in which the economic espionage team had to operate. It was headquartered at the U.S. Treasury Department but unaffiliated, although Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. privately supported it, and it’s likely President Franklin Roosevelt was given an inkling. “It had to be secret because, between the 1939 start of the war and the U.S. entry after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, the U.S. was steadfastly neutral. Americans didn’t think the war was ‘our business.’ Only two percent favored the U.S. becoming militarily involved,” Graham told me from his Los Angeles base in a Zoom chat. (In keeping with his belief that writing should be respected as a business, he wore his usual impeccable business-like attire of a navy blazer and crisp white shirt, and his hair was neatly cut and combed.)

Author Photo: Graham Moore

Graham Moore
© Ashley-Randall

In the novel, the colorful team of six men and one woman—U.S. Treasury department bureaucrats, outside economists, and high-finance lawyers—fight a battle of wits on many fronts. One is to undermine “The Dark Wizard of Global Finance,” Hjalmar Schacht, head of the German Reichsbank (central bank), who has pulled the German economy out of the doldrums through the creation of a shadow currency. Then, there’s a bitter dispute over economic philosophies between Harry Dexter White, head of the U.S. team, and Englishman John Maynard Keynes, renowned as the foremost economic thinker of the era. Graham vividly portrays both.

“In a debate such as Keynes and White had, each side can regard it as the good guy while thinking the other side’s arguments are self-serving,” Graham says about his even-handed approach to the disagreement.

On the home front, there may be a Communist sympathizer on the team, leaking information to the Soviets. There’s also a pro-Nazi faction in the State Department determined to make the team fail. “I was shocked when I discovered there were Nazis in the department,” Graham says. Suspense is at peak level when, as in real life, the team clandestinely steals a top-secret document from the State Department as proof.

Graham tells the saga through the perspective of team member Ansel Luxford, with whom readers can instantly identify. He grew up on a modest farm, lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is married, the father of a young child, a tax attorney, and craftsman hobbyist—a seemingly ordinary person willing to do the extraordinary to save the country he loves. “Ansel becomes comfortable with performing deceit,” Graham says.

Graham is also a gifted raconteur. His account of his book’s development is riveting listening. “In the summer of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we retreated to rural Michigan in the middle of nowhere—me, my wife, who was pregnant with our first child, our dog, my brother, his wife, their newborn baby and dog, my Mom, and my sister.” A voracious reader, he dipped into a pile of books he had on hand on subjects “I’d always wanted to read about.” One was about the July 1944 conference of delegates from 44 nations held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, aimed at creating a post-war harmonized global economy. The conference established the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to do so.

“Ansel Luxford was listed as attending every meeting,” Graham noted. He embarked on a hunt to locate Ansel’s three children, Angela, Ansel Junior, and Stephen. Although Ansel had died in the 1970s, 50 years before, and there’d been no obituary and no easy way to trace descendants, Graham determinedly persisted. “Googling; emails; the World Bank; Treasury Department; law firms; alumni records; wedding announcements. Nothing.” Then, he discovered that a daughter-in-law had an interior decorating business.

“I got her on the telephone. At first, she suspected I was a scammer. Angela asked me, ‘Why do you want to write about my father? Nobody’s heard of him.’ ‘That’s why I want to,’ I said.” She gave him Ansel Junior’s phone number, but contacting him was challenging. “He’s a sheepherder in rural Montana, reachable only by satellite phone. It took me some time to connect.”

Graham made the manuscript available to the children, but they didn’t ask for the power of approval. “They said they’d sometimes wondered if their father was in espionage—‘Why does Dad keep going to Cairo?’—but were never sure.”

Graham regards his having no economic background as a plus in writing the book because it helped him make the economics clear. Similarly, he found not being a higher mathematics expert helped him make the calculations in The Imitation Game understandable to the general public. “Readers are so much smarter than writers often imagine. They can understand really complex ideas if they’re described properly. THE WEALTH OF SHADOWS addresses deep questions and goes back to the dawn of civilization. What is money? Why does it exist? What does it do? What are the practical implications? Why are there passionate arguments about what its role should be?”

Each chapter is headed with a quote about economics by famous people throughout the ages to highlight how the subject is always timeless and topical. For example, chapter 1’s quotation is: “It might make sense just to get some [bitcoin] in case it catches on. If enough people think the same way, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” – Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin. That’s the same philosophy that motivates the people in THE WEALTH OF SHADOWS.

Graham employed two research assistants. “I still read everything myself. I compared my notes on reference books to theirs.” He gave them backdrop assignments such as “What airline(s) flew from Washington D.C. to Havana, what were the planes like, schedules, flight attendants’ uniforms?”

Regarding the dedication, “For Hugo and Louis, gooses.” Hugo and Louis are his children; it’s a family in-joke to call one another a goose on occasion.


The Big Thrill Interviews New York Times Bestselling Author Graham Moore

Susan Goldenberg
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