RogerBW's Blog

The Laundrymen, Jeffrey Robinson 23 April 2022

1995 non-fiction, an informal look at money-laundering.

My degree is in financial economics (in fact, I was doing it as this book was being written). I understand this stuff reasonably well, and find it fascinating. So I think it's a very great shame that this book is so dreadfully dull.

Essentially, every chapter is the same. It starts with a little bit of theory (e.g. "it's very easy to buy a company that exists only on paper"), then goes on to an example or two. The theory is simple but reasonably well-explained; the examples may have some connection to the theory, but very few laundering cases are pure examples of one specific technique, one incident can look a lot like another, and by a few chapters in there's not a whole lot to say that hasn't been said already, particularly when most of the examples deal with drug money and the American market.

I think that a large part of the problem is inadvertantly explained in the introduction to the (lightly-revised) 2009 edition that I read. Robinson started this project after chatting with one particular person, John Hurley, the Customs Attaché at the US Embassy in London, who got him interested in the subject; Hurley then gave him more people to talk to, not named here but clearly all to some extent in the US law enforcement community. And the institutional biases come through: the US federal system always looks good, and other law enforcers always look bad. Foreigners can't solve cases until there's a US connection and the Feds step in. US anti-money-laundering law and policy are the best, and everyone else is a blithering incompetent, especially the Bank of England. (Well, fair enough.) Even American crooked lawyers are somehow more impressive and worthy of respect than those of other countries, though the CIA is always in the wrong. Books written from talking with a single source almost always end up making that source look good; here the "single source" is in effect the US federal law enforcement collective culture and groupthink.

And there's a rather embarrassing final chapter, clearly also a result of that institutional attitude, claiming that drug legalisation has not caused drugs to vanish instantly and therefore it's not worth trying ever again – ignoring the noticeable lack of alcohol-smugglers having public gun battles on the streets of Chicago these days, not to mention the rarity of methanol poisoning. ("The damage that drugs do" is regarded as a constant, rather than splitting off the damage caused by high prices and the innate friction of a criminal enterprise – no quality control, having to deal with untrustworthy people, no legal recourse for anyone involved if anything goes wrong – from the damage caused by actual drug use.) All right, in 1995 the explicitly anti-Black basis for Nixon's war on drugs wasn't yet public knowledge, though one suspects that many of the people talking to Robinson would have known about it (and probably approved).

A dreary and depressing book, therefore, which does its subject a grave disservice.

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See also:
Lying for Money, Dan Davies

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