#31: You're fired.
The protagonist is the manager of the ad department for a major computer magazine. (This is back in the late '90's, when computer magazines were still a thing.) His publication's just been taken over by a new owner who's eager to find some budget cuts. That very day, a salesman announces that the buyer for one of their major advertisers just backed out of a major spread, leaving the magazine with six pages of ads to fill three days before press time.
Another salesman, meanwhile, announces that he has a past with this recalcitrant buyer - he was at a conference where the buyer, who's a real scumbag, tried to rape an attendee. The buyer's influence kept him safe from prosecution, but he's awfully scared about his wife finding out about the incident. The second salesman intimates that maybe if he placed the follow-up call - not threaten anything; just give him a howdy-do - maybe the buyer's guilty memory will be jogged sufficiently to induce him to make good on his ad buy.
The publisher, meanwhile, is furious at the horrendous timing of this disaster, which has put everyone's job in jeopardy. He demands that Salesman #1, an emotional basketcase who's been in professional freefall for years now, be finally let go.
Is the rational course of action here to:
a) Let Salesman #2 be the one to place the follow-up call to the buyer. Stump for Salesman #1 as much as you can, but understand that he's kind of run through his chances.
b) Drive to the buyer's house at 5 a.m.; wait in his driveway and accost his wife and children; engage in explicit threats and blackmail and part with him on screaming-match terms. Brand your publisher a craven traitor for threatening Salesman #1's job and plot with the new publisher to steal his job. When that falls through, slug the publisher so hard it takes three security guards to get you off him.
It's tough to be on the side of your hero when his "rational actions" should be evident to anyone as freakishly huge mistakes. That said, I did like the opening part of the book, where Ad Guy's ad team - working-class mother who's climbed top salesperson through sheer nerve and a motormouth; good-hearted mook who's just this side of the Mafia; kindly sadsack just barely clinging to functionality - is spinning their gears and drawing on all their resources to try to save themselves. As Who Wants to Be a Millionaire showed us, problem-solving is an inherently intriguing activity. I would've liked the book far more had it focused on the team working its way out of an ever-escalating business predicament.
Unfortunately, the author wants instead to ride the '90's Grishamesque legal/corporate-thriller money train, so the entertaining teamwork is abandoned for an Identikit "one down-on-his-luck good working professional in the pincers of a shadowy conspiracy" plot. Unfortunately, the author spends way too much time getting his hero down on his luck - more than a third of the book, which wallows far too long in boilerplate alcoholism, marital strife, and at-least-initially-unlikely employment problems (even if he did punch out his publisher, would the only job available to a former high-up exec at one of the U.S.'s most prestigious computer publications really be at a telemarketing firm?). By the time the ostensible meat of the plot arrives, the book is three-quarters over. It's like the author didn't know which of his three storylines he wanted his book to be about - or that he didn't know how to expand any of them into an arresting full-length narrative.
I liked the smooth English gentleman who managed a Jamaican bank who gets nonchalantly involved in the crime proceedings, and the climax, where Ad Guy has to make the sale of his life, is half-clever in its aptness. Reader John C. Slattery, too, has a way with accents you wouldn't expect from his default aggressive Anglo-Saxonness. But overall, the story's just so confused and slight. So slight, in fact, that it doesn't really merit the words I've already wasted on it, so I'll close here.