Will Ferguson’s mystery novel 419
(2012) follows what happens when a man falls prey to a devious and fatal internet scam, and his grieving daughter travels to Nigeria to find his killer. The novel won numerous awards, including the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2013 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award. Ferguson is a travel writer and novelist best known for his humor and sharp insights into the human condition. His books are available in multiple languages. He also writes for prestigious publications including Esquire UK
, Canadian Geographic
, and The New York Times
The focus of Ferguson’s 419
is a well-known Internet cash scam, known as the 419, named after the section of Nigeria’s criminal code that makes the scam behavior illegal. Typically, scammers pose as a prince, heiress, or high-ranking executive, begging people to help them move money out of Nigeria. The scam victims lose any money they invest in the fraud.
What concerns Ferguson is that, although 419 scamming is illegal, it isn’t punished in Nigeria. Fraudsters simply bribe officials and pay off the charges. A very lucrative underground industry, it is not going to be shut down soon. Ferguson weaves together multiple storylines to explore how the scam affects people across the globe. At first, the storylines don’t seem connected, but they slowly intersect.419
opens with a nasty car accident in Calgary, Canada. A man called Henry plunges from an embankment. He dies instantly. It is unclear whether the incident was an accident or deliberate. All the police know is that there were two sets of tire tracks at the scene. Everything goes from bad to worse when the family finds out that Henry recently put their house up as loan collateral.
No one can understand why Henry did this. He didn’t need money for anything. He was very responsible with his finances. This time, however, Henry didn’t keep up with his loan repayments. He missed so many payments that the bank is foreclosing on the property. The family doesn’t have anywhere to live because it’s too late to save the house.
Involved because of the fatal car accident, the police probe into the circumstances around the loan. They accept the family’s argument that it is out of character for Henry to take out a loan. When the police check his computer, they find numerous emails to an account based in Nigeria.
These emails are between Henry and Victor Okechukwu. Victor claims that he is a Nigerian lawyer representing Sandra Atta, a wealthy woman. Her father died in a helicopter crash, but before she received her inheritance, a crime gang seized control of the accounts. Victor needs Henry’s help to access the funds—or so he says.
Victor is really a man called Winston, a scammer based in Nigeria. Very dangerous criminals control Winston, making him do what they want. Winston cannot escape the cyber scamming business even if he wanted to. Ferguson isn’t asking readers to sympathize with Winston, instead, he’s asking them to understand the people behind the computer screens.
Meanwhile, Henry’s daughter, Laura, can’t handle her father’s death. She isn’t angry about the money he wasted. She is angry with the perpetrators who scammed him. Once Laura finds out that Victor supposedly works in Lagos, she heads there to find him. She doesn’t care how dangerous the journey might be—she wants justice for her father. Her brother, on the other hand, frets over the money that Henry poured into the venture.
Laura plans to recover Henry’s money before turning the perpetrators over to the police. The problem is that, when she arrives in Lagos, she doesn’t know where to start. An introverted copywriter who barely leaves the house, she doesn’t handle new people or places well. She must smarten up soon or she will end up dead like her father.
Meanwhile, Laura learns another uncomfortable truth about her father’s final weeks. He substantially increased his life insurance. He left all the money to Laura. The family does not understand this and everyone is angry. Laura, however, knows there might be a troubling explanation. It wasn’t an accidental crash; Henry plotted the whole thing.
Laura doesn’t want to be right, but the more time she spends in Nigeria, unpicking the emails and studying them for patterns, the more she understands her father’s troubled state of mind. She realizes that the scammers terrorized him, making him paranoid and fearful. They constantly told him that there was no way out because they controlled everything now. Henry felt that he had no choice but to kill himself.
The implication of suicide is that Laura doesn’t receive any inheritance payments. While she doesn’t care about the money, she is sad that even her father’s final plan didn’t go right. She eventually finds the scammer, Winston, but she can take little action. Not able to get any money back, she returns home empty-handed. She realizes that the cyber scamming world is far wickeder and far larger than she ever imagined.