Book review: Scream if you Want to Go Faster

Scream if you Want to Go Faster by Russ Litten William Heinemann, 370pp, £11.99

According to The Bible, when God caught sight of the wickedness of his creation, Man, He was so disgusted by the corruption and violence that He sent a great flood to wash the Earth clean - or what you might call the world's first "do over".

But floods do the opposite of cleanse, for the receding, devastating water covers everything in detritus.

Battered, water-logged, and begrimed is how we find the characters in screenwriter Russ Litten's debut novel, Scream if you Want to Go Faster. It's set in his home town of Hull, just a few months after the 2007 flood, at the time of the port city's annual October fun fair.

In the course of three action-packed days, ten different, inter-connected, stories play out with all the ups, downs and noise of a roller coaster. The novel is full of people who are displaced - emotionally if not necessarily physically - who are confronting loss, and who have had their secrets peeled back and their privacy invaded. There's a pervasive feeling of grubbiness about it and them.

First we meet Dave, a forklift operator and neophyte transvestite, who unconvincingly transforms into Denise each weekend. Whereas Dave handles colleagues' jibes with quiet grace, Denise, or the drink inside her, has a temper like touchpaper.

Rose is a widow dipping a testing toe into online dating. She's of the school that holds that men are only after one thing, and perhaps as a result does seem to attract every pervert in town. A trip to the fair with her granddaughter, Billie, comes close to ending in disaster, but a visit to a spiritualist church causes deeper upset, when she encounters an unscrupulous con artist.

Kerry works in a care home for disturbed adults. Or is she an inmate? Sure, she bustles around officiously, but is she watching or watched over? We discover that she is consumed by raging grief for her sister, Zoe, who died in a bizarre accident while away on a holiday. Or was Zoe murdered, as Kerry insists? Did the seemingly sweet, sensitive Darren, now dating Michelle, throw Zoe from that hotel balcony, or did she tumble off, as he claims? Litten strews the path with enough ambiguous clues to invite readers to mull over all the possibilities.

We also meet Carl, who has a heavily pregnant wife, a wee girl, and a complete lack of interest in anything but getting off his face on booze and weed. A night on the town ends with the near-Neanderthal getting the beating of his life and the next day he is forced to confront an immigrant sex worker in her real-life persona as a loving wife and mother.

Brian is a supermarket security guard whose tough-guy exterior belies a surprising willingness to negotiate when need be. And Trevor is an ex-convict, fresh out of prison for the third time, who takes over dog-sitting duties on behalf of his deadbeat brother, but whose best intentions swiftly - and gruesomely - unravel.

Written in the present tense, and employing the earthiest of language, Litten's novel has won early praise for its range and the authenticity of its voices. But I found it suffered from a lack of distinction, and had to create a cast list to delineate one character from another. Not only did everyone's story sound the same, but they unravelled in similarly predictable ways, nearly always ending in violence. Putting the novel down overnight meant that the next day I had to retrace my steps to the start of certain storylines. Not only was it tough distinguishing who was who, I struggled to care: they were merely variations on "grim" and "unpleasant".

To be sure, there are flashes of humour. Michelle's mum, forced into a caravan while her flooded kitchen is being replaced, sums up her terrible week by citing all the people to blame: "the council (‘them bastards'); the loss adjusters (‘them clueless bastards'); he insurance company (‘them thieving bastards'); the builders (‘them lazy bastards'); and Michelle's dad (‘that useless bastard')."

Perhaps it stands to reason that the tale of a hectic, violent, boozy weekend would leave me with a headache and regrets. It reminded me that in 2005, Hull was voted the worst place to live in the UK. Sadly, Litten's novel has done nothing to inspire me to visit.

TREASURE ISLANDS: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World

BY Nicholas Shaxson

Bodley Head, 336pp, 14.99

Review by

BILL JAMIESON

We live in a world of stolen money. Or if not stolen, money that has been washed, rinsed, laundered and ironed till all tell-tale clues as to origin have been removed. In fact, so much money is now said to be laundered that it's impossible to tell the difference between clean money and honest, down-to-earth, legally earned and unprocessed money.

Treasure Islands sets itself up as the definitive expos of the world of tax havens, "the ugliest chapter in global economic affairs since slavery", according to the blurb. Don't expect a dry, anaemic account of cross-border capital flows or a tourist guide to the world's most attractive offshore havens. The book is accusatory, shocking in the sheer scale of the murky world it describes and lacks for nothing in hyperbole. It comes with an agenda and a full seal of approval from the polemical journalist John Pilger. That alone should send the alarm bells ringing.

If you are looking for an easy scapegoat for the global financial crisis and the problems faced by cash-strapped and debt-laden governments, Treasure Islands is the book for you. Tax havens, it says, are corrupting the world economy, "casting a thick shroud of secrecy over nearly every major economic process". Gangsters, drug barons, corrupt global corporations, dodgy arms dealers, tax avoiding hedge funds, weaselly accountants, shady people in sunny places: all are interwoven in an account that is never far from lurid.

Plausible? Up to a point. No financial system on earth is free of corrupt and deceiving people. Drug cartels, unscrupulous rich people, amoral businesses: these we know and must condemn.

But does this amount to anything like the gargantuan scale of tax dodging and money-hiding set out in this book? Readers will experience an immediate jolt on being told by Shaxson, a freelance journalist, that his inventory of tax havens includes the City of London, Dublin and the Netherlands

From the outset we are told that more than half of world trade passes, at least on paper, through tax havens. Over half of all banking assets and a third of foreign direct investment by multinational corporations are routed offshore. The IMF estimated that in 2010 the balance sheets of small island financial centres alone added up to $18 trillion - a sum equivalent to about a third of the world's GDP. Some 83 of America's 100 biggest corporations have offices in tax havens.

How is a tax haven defined? According to Shaxson, "these places don't just offer an escape from tax, they also provide secrecy, an escape from financial regulation". His definition of a tax haven is "a place that seeks to attract business by offering politically stable facilities to help people or entities get round the rules, laws and regulations of jurisdictions elsewhere".

Shaxson even suggests that a telltale sign of a tax haven is a country whose officials insist it is not a tax haven. By this logic, denial is a tool not for the defence but the prosecution: an interesting notion of justice.

Given the size of the net Shaxson casts, it may have been a shorter book had he concentrated on countries that were not tax havens under his definition. Of the 60 secrecy jurisdictions identified, the biggest comprise the City of London, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

And then there are the UK crown dependencies (Jersey, Guernsey, Sark) and overseas territories such as the Cayman Islands. The Caymans are described as the world's fifth largest financial centre, with an estimated $2.2 trillion in deposits.

Is all this really credible? Only if you share an unquestioning belief that tax competition is wrong; that high tax governments should dictate the terms of global business; that governments should have full and automatic access of information to your bank account; that you have no right to shield your savings from totalitarian states or jurisdictions that slide into kleptocracy; and that high tax jurisdictions have every right to snuff low tax ones out of existence: accept all this and Treasure Islands is your home: a prison island more like, but a home.

Much of this assault is, to put it mildly, innocent of detail. For example, the Cayman Islands has full tax transparency with 20 jurisdictions under OECD-approved treaties and it has a full proactive reporting disclosure system operating now with all 27 EU jurisdictions. Yet it is still constantly mischaracterised as a secretive, tax evasion destination. Not so.

Two developments have brought controversy over tax havens to the boil: a 1998 OECD report on "Harmful Tax Competition" which sought to create a world in which all countries should be taxed at an agreed super rate of tax established by some supra-national agency; and the 2007-08 global financial crisis which sparked a hunt for a convenient scapegoat: tax havens. Banks and regulatory agencies in America, the UK and continental Europe had much to answer for over trillions of dollars of sub-prime mortgage lending and the conversion of these toxic loans into triple A-rated securities. But closing down hedge fund "tax loopholes" and moving against "tax havens" became a cause clbre of finance ministers who could at least be seen to be doing something in a world they could barely comprehend, still less can regulate with competence.

Of the many toxic elements in this book, two stand out. The first is a failure to see that tax competition is a legitimate, and indeed desirable, feature of modern finance: without it you write a carte blanche for high tax tyranny.

The second is a failure to distinguish between lawful tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion. An oil worker whose work takes him to many countries, not all of them stable, is not a crook in having his financial affairs based in Jersey. A public company is not breaking the law when it pursues legal and accepted tax mitigation and avoidance. And an investment company is not the spawn of Satan by seeking to ensure a lawful minimisation of tax for its investors.

How much better a book this might have been had the publishers brought together analysis from the other side of the argument and focused on such issues as how much confidentiality citizens should enjoy over their financial affairs - if any - and what checks and balances can be put in place against unscrupulous governments pursuing tax claims in other jurisdictions. These are among many questions of tax policy today.

Sadly, Treasure Islands is a polemic, and by virtue of that, not a book that helps to answer them.