Paul Erdman was the son of American parents, born in Canada, and educated in St. Louis, New York and Basel. He was destined to become a Swiss banker, Swiss prisoner, novelist, and guru of consumer investment. His father was a Lutheran minister but, although he attended seminary, he was not destined to be a man of the cloth.

He became a Swiss prisoner because of alleged activities while working as a Swiss banker. The details of the accusations aren’t at hand but involved the misappropriation of bank funds for speculation in the cocoa market. It was while waiting in jail that he conceived the idea of writing a novel. After he got out on bail, he escaped to the United States. The U.S. and Switzerland had at that time no extradition treaty and apparently no inclination to cooperate with one another. So Erdman remained free and, since he was no longer burdened with the duties of a banker, pursued a career in fiction.

In a July 23, 1973 New York Times review of his first novel, The Billion Dollar Sure Thing, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt pointed out the novelty and interest of Erdman’s invention: "’The Billion Dollar Sure Thing’ really does teach you a thing or two–if you never understood before–about international exchange rates, the gold standard, and the importance of worldwide confidence in the dollar." At a time when no one had an E-Trade account and fewer perhaps than today kept up with financial news, The Billion Dollar Sure Thing was an innovation. It earned the 1974 Edgar Allan Poe award for Best First Novel.

Over the space of a quarter-century, Erdman produced nine novels that ranged in scope from financial capers to international economic intrigues. His characters are proprietors of coin shops, nuclear scientists, mobsters, prostitutes, and Fed Chairmen. The grist for the plot mill is slot-skimming in Vegas, speculation in the silver market, zero-coupon municipal bonds, and sovereign default.

Erdman also promoted consumer knowledge of finance through such books as Paul Erdman’s Money Book as well as numerous TV and radio appearances.

Critics sometimes attacked Erdman’s style. He wasn’t what you would call a Literary writer. If it’s fine prose you’re after, maybe read Henry James; for beautiful romantic sentiment, Nicholas Sparks. Erdman’s talent lay in making large sums of money dramatic.

A 1987 NYT review of The Panic of ’89 notes that "it’s surprising that even more financial thrillers have not been written." Since that review, many more have been. In fact, financial thrillers multiplied like rabbits in the decade or so before Erdman’s death (for example, Christopher Reich’s 1998 Numbered Account).

I enjoy Erdman’s stories, whatever you think of their style. Stories about money are always timely. Capers are fun even when they fail. Erdman’s stories tell us just enough of finance to give us an idea of how little we know. If only for that reason, they are a salutary influence.

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