Paul E. Erdman, a writer of best-selling novels of financial intrigue, who began his literary career in the comfort of a Swiss jail where he was being held in connection with the collapse of the Swiss bank he ran, died on Monday, 23 April, at his ranch in Healdsburg, California. He was 74.
The cause was cancer, his family said.
An economist and former Lutheran seminarian, Erdman was widely regarded as having popularized financial fiction, a genre he affectionately called “fi-fi”. Among his best-known novels are The Billion Dollar Sure Thing, The Crash of ’79 and The Panic of ’89.
Intoxicating passion: Author Paul E. Erdman began his writing career in a Swiss jail.
Erdman was in all likelihood one of the few novelists whose books were routinely reviewed—often glowingly—in BusinessWeek and The American Banker as well as in mainstream publications. His novels featured exotic locales, shadowy cartels, and lots and lots of money.
Paul Emil Erdman was born on 19 May 1932, in Stratford, Ontario, to parents who had moved there from the US. (Erdman’s father, a Lutheran pastor, had a pulpit in Stratford.)
In 1954, Paul Erdman earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, followed the next year by a second bachelor’s, from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
After a stint at The Washington Post, he earned a doctorate in economics, European history and theology from the University of Basel in Switzerland in 1958.
Staying in Europe, Erdman worked as an economist for the European Coal and Steel Community. In 1965, he established a private bank in Switzerland, the first American to do so. Originally called the Salik Bank, it later became the United California Bank in Basel.
In 1970, Erdman’s bank collapsed because of unauthorized speculation in cocoa and silver futures. Losses were reported in the tens of millions of dollars. Erdman, the bank’s president, was dispatched to a Swiss jail—a 17th-century dungeon in Basel—to await charges.
It was by all accounts a very nice dungeon. Room service, complete with fine wines, was provided (at Erdman’s expense) by the best local restaurants. The wine would come in handy later, as he discovered.
Erdman also had a portable Olivetti, and to pass the time, he decided to write a non-fiction book about economics. But the one thing the dungeon lacked was a research library, so he turned the book into a novel.
Writing was a struggle at first. But help arrived in the form of a new inmate, a Frenchman reputed to be the finest safecracker in Europe.
“I sent him over a couple of bottles of wine, and in exchange he told me a way for an amateur to crack a safe rather easily with ordinary equipment,” Erdman told The New York Times in 1981. “That became the first scene in the first chapter in my first novel.”
The novel, The Billion Dollar Sure Thing, won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1974.
After about eight months in jail, Erdman posted a $133,000 bail and moved back to the US. In 1973, a Swiss court convicted him in absentia of fraud and sentenced him to nine years’ imprisonment. He declined to return to Switzerland.
Erdman’s novel The Silver Bears became a Hollywood movie in 1978, starring Michael Caine, Cybill Shepherd, Martin Balsam and Jay Leno. He also wrote several non-fiction books on financial topics.
Erdman is survived by his wife, two daughters and two grandchildren.
Reflecting on his time in jail, Erdman concluded that from a business standpoint, at least, it had been of considerable benefit. As he told The American Banker in 1996, “It was what you call a successful career change.” NYT