Undercover: A Novel of a Life
Random House AU
Book club copy from Maribyrnong Library Service
Keith Bulfin is a middle-aged Australian stockbroker who was living a good life until he was charged and convicted of conspiracy to defraud. Gone was the lovely family home, gone were the cars, gone were the bank accounts, all seized by the police. Keith was sentenced originally to 5 years jail, 2 years without parole but an appeal from the prosecution saw this changed to 6 and 3. A minimum risk prisoner, he is allowed relative freedom at first – weekend visits home, permission to study for a Masters degree. But then word is out that someone who thinks Keith has information about their own fraudulent practices and could testify to such, has put a hit out on him. Jail suddenly becomes a very dangerous place for Keith and there are numerous attempts on his life from prisoners hoping to cash in on the bounty.
Keith is moved to a maximum security wing of Port Phillip Prison, the best that correctional services can do to protect him. He is locked in a cell 23.5 hours a day, without a window, without fresh air. Exercise is 30m per day in a small yard. His privileges are gone because they are not extended to prisoners in this wing. He is incarcerated with the worst of the worst – rapists, pedophiles, murderers. He becomes depressed and anxious. However during his time in prison he befriends fellow banker Daniel Gómez, a Mexican drug cartel launderer who absconded with over $1 billion dollars and was on the run for 10 months before he was caught and jailed in Melbourne.
After Keith’s release he is approached by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) who wish to take advantage of his connection and friendship with Gómez. He becomes a DEA agent working undercover as a private banker who will launder the money of the Mexican and Colombian drug cartels so that the DEA can track its progress. It is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and if it all goes wrong he could be tortured and executed by any number of people. They will track down his family as well, no one will be safe. Keith is also working “off the books” for the DEA and chances are if it all goes wrong, they’ll deny his very existance and provide him with little to no support.
And then it does all go wrong. And Keith is forced to recognise that no one can help him now – especially not the DEA. The only person who can get him out of this mess, the only person that he can rely on, that he can trust….is himself.
This is definitely not the sort of book I’d normally choose to read for myself but part of being involved in a book club is challenging yourself and stepping out of your reading comfort zone a bit. I was a bit better prepared this month – I started 3 days out from bookclub instead of on the actual day of the meeting. And I was pleasantly surprised with how easy to read I found this.
This is kind of a horrifying read, but mostly my horror was reserved for the way in which Bulfin was treated by groups of authority. I don’t pretend to understand financial stuff so I’m not really sure why Bulfin was charged or whether or not he was actually guilty but it was clear that he was utterly low risk as a prisoner. The fact that the best thing Correctional Services could do for him when his life was at risk was to place him in a maximum security wing of a prison for dangerous inmates was unbelievable. No one would be able to cope with those conditions and Bulfin was no exception. His stories about what went on in there, how he was treated (mostly by prison guards) were horrific. And then when he is released, he was basically blackmailed into doing whatever the DEA wanted him to do where the likelihood was he’d be neatly murdered and then the DEA would never have to pay him what they promised him they would. However the DEA didn’t count on Bulfin being that smart and having that much self-preservation. He manages to extricate himself from several impossible scenarios basically with little to no help from the DEA. In fact it’s quite clear that later in the book being aligned with the DEA is doing more harm than good.
It’s a common thing in television shows for operatives to be “burned” by the organisation they work for which is troubling enough but it seems even more so when it’s some random guy from half a world away who really wasn’t trained for this sort of work. Bulfin seems the exception to the rule – something tells me that 99/100 other people in his position would probably have met a gruesome end, much like several that Bulfin himself witnesses when attempting to broker a deal with the head of a Mexican drug cartel for his freedom. Given that Bulfin was employed by the FBI some years after his work with the DEA this time targeting terrorist organisations in the Middle East he clearly had talents that were there to be used and he has made the best out of a bad situation. Probably he will never be able to forget what he has seen but it seems he has found a way to deal with it and perhaps use his skills for the better. I’m hoping for his sake that the FBI prove more reliable than the DEA.
Still for me, it’s amazing and slightly ridiculous that an organisation in a foreign country can blackmail a resident of another country (Bulfin was actually a New Zealand citizen but an Australian resident) to put themselves in such danger like that. Bulfin was basically given little choice in the matter and he was placated with promises that the DEA would keep his family safe and that he’d be well rewarded for his efforts. Given their attempts at keeping Bulfin safe were patchy at best and the promised rewards didn’t eventuate, you wouldn’t place much faith in them to protect a family on the other side of the globe who could’ve potentially been sitting ducks. And the Australian prison system doesn’t exactly cover itself in glory either in this book – surely there was something else they could’ve done in order to protect Bulfin from other prisoners attempting to collect the bounty placed on him? If incarcerating a white collar prisoner in with the worst of the worst is the only option and expecting that to not have an affect on him (or not caring if it did), then something is seriously wrong here.
Book #141 of 2013
Undercover: A Novel of a Life is the 6th novel read and reviewed for the Aussie Author Challenge 2013 where I’m aiming to read more books by Australian men.