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Stephen Frey makes a pile of money during the week. And when he sits down to write novels on early mornings and weekends—well, nothing really changes.
Frey, a Great Falls, Va., resident who’s managing director of private equity at Winston Partners, a McLean, Va.–based investment firm, has also found time to stamp out mass-market financial-espionage thrillers at the rate of one a year for the past decade. (The Takeover, Silent Partner, and Trust Fund have hit the New York Times best-seller list.) His latest, Shadow Account, doesn’t exactly break the mold: It’s a saucy and sinister sketch of a young investment banker’s dive into high-stakes fraud among big Wall Street names and presidential Cabinet members.
“I’m not one of these people that wants to change the world—all I want to do is entertain you,” Frey says. “I want my books to read like a movie on the page.”
In Shadow Account, Frey’s clichéd hero—the very sexy, very debonair, and very fit Conner Ashby—is a rags-to-riches investment banker who’s simultaneously plucky and naive as he drives a clockwork plot. One of Frey’s big strengths as a writer is explaining the arcane financial world—showing what happened at Enron, for example, in a way that doesn’t induce a nap.
“I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” Frey says of the way his experience folds into his prose. “I’ve done corporate banking, investment banking, mergers and acquisitions, principal investing. And I’ve worked on the trading floor.”
But Frey, a 43-year-old whose defining quality is self-assurance, admits he wasn’t a great writer in college at the University of Virginia. During a 10-week postgraduation cross-country road trip, though, Frey and his roommates came up with the plot to a spy novel—and Frey was hooked on writing.
He kept at it throughout business school and jobs in the financial world until he sold his first novel, The Takeover, in 1995. (His literary agent, Cynthia Manson, had an office he could see from his window at J.P. Morgan in Manhattan.) Frey, who says it takes him about six months to bang out each of his books, is already finishing up his next title, about two private equity firms trying to destroy each other. “Then I get six months off,” he says.
Whereas his novels feature protagonists who have to be intensely paranoid in order to navigate nefarious political and financial webs, Frey himself is pretty sanguine about capitalism. But he knows conspiracy sells, and he thinks one of the most realistic ways to hawk it is through the financial thriller. “We as a nation have a fascination with these…shady groups that have a lot of power,” Frey says. “If [those groups] really exist, you gotta have money. The financial world has to be involved.” —Bidisha Banerjee