Onyx reviews: Bet
Your Life by Richard Dooling
It takes guts to set a thriller in an insurance fraud investigation office in
Omaha, Nebraska, but Grisham and others already have the sexy legal thriller
territory staked out. Bet Your Life is inspired by a segment of the industry
known as viaticals, in which companies buy life insurance policies from
individuals in need of cash. They pay a fraction of the policy's face value and
are essentially betting on how long the owner is going to live. The quicker the
person dies, the faster their wager pays off.
While the business is primarily legitimate, the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s
inspired rampant fraud. Viatical companies recruited people with fatal diseases
to buy a number of moderately valued policies from different companies after
lying about their health. If the policies were below a certain threshold value,
insurers performed no medical certification tests and weren't likely to conduct
expensive fraud investigations after the policyholder died. Instead, they
absorbed the cost of paying out the policy by raising everyone else's rates.
In its golden age, insurance fraud investigation teams enjoyed the same luster
as the FBI. In the twenty-first century, Reliable Allied Trust's fraud team
consists of three people: a manic depressive drug abusing computer geek named
Lenny, an ice princess named Miranda and the book's narrator, Carver Hartnet,
who pines for Miranda when he isn't playing interactive shoot-em-up computer
games. Lenny has been in charge of an investigation into a viatical company, but
Reliable's president is concerned that Lenny may be working both sides against
the middle, so he gives the file to Carver. When Lenny's brashness finally gets
him fired and he's found dead in his apartment the next morning after the trio
were out on a late-night binge, Carver's interest in the viatical company
becomes less academic.
One of Dooling's strengths is in creating characters who are sympathetic without
being entirely likable. Carver fawns after Miranda in a manner that no
self-respecting man would ever admit to, but doubtless many identify with.
Miranda is an enigma, welcoming Carver's friendship and companionship but
unwilling to cross certain arbitrary lines. Like women in other Dooling novels,
she either has sexual hang-ups or uses a man's attraction to her to string him
along. Carver wonders if her religious upbringing has somehow wounded her, but
he's unable to restrain himself and regularly finds himself dashed to pieces
upon her rocky shores.
He also doesn't trust her completely and plants a program that allows him full
access to her home computer. More was going on between Miranda and Lenny than
she admits. Carver asks himself why they exchanged dozens of e-mails a day when
their cubicles were only a few feet apart, why she had a key to Lenny's
apartment and why she felt it necessary to immediately turn off Lenny's computer
after they find his body hunched over the keyboard.
Bet Your Life is gritty and edgy, venturing into—or creating—a subgenre some
have called "insurance noir." Carver and his colleagues are computer
savvy and Dooling deftly interweaves e-mail log files and net-cams into the
plot. Speaking on behalf of technophobes is Charlie Becker, a fraud investigator
who prefers pencils to e-mail and picking up a suspect by car rather than
following their tracks in cyberspace.
Everyone suspects everyone else as the investigation broadens, and justifiably
so. The plot is convoluted—at moments confusing—and the characters'
motivations are sometimes obscure. But so is life.
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