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The art of industrial espionage

Corporate investigation may lack the glamour of Bond and Bourne, but the two worlds aren't so far removed. Former analyst Chris Morgan Jones tells Tim Walker why.
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Chris Morgan Jones would probably make a decent spy. He's dashing, well spoken, well travelled. He has a degree in English literature from Oxford, which makes him more qualified than James Bond or Jason Bourne. But though the 41-year-old has worked in intelligence, his job was crunching numbers, not cracking heads. For 11 years, he was an employee of Kroll, the world's oldest and best-known corporate-investigations firm.

Due diligence and forensic accounting don't set the pulse racing like, say, the trailer for the latest 007 movie, so it's quite a feat for Morgan Jones to have conceived a thriller about business intelligence that is genuinely thrilling. His debut novel, An Agent of Deceit, sees corporate investigator Ben Webster sent to explore the dealings of a shady Russian oligarch. Like vintage Le Carré, it takes the reader on a tour of Europe's Cold War capitals: London, Moscow and Berlin.

In a world where the biggest corporations easily outstrip the GDPs of small nations, corporate intelligence is almost as grand a game as its government-run counterpart, and Morgan Jones's book may be the first in a topical-spy-novel sub-genre. "Business intelligence fills a gap that government intelligence agencies aren't really around to cover," he says, "and that's corporate life. The state only takes an interest when there's a national strategic concern, so that leaves huge areas untouched."

Morgan Jones joined Kroll in 1997, soon after a chunk of its staff had splintered off to start a rival firm. "I was suddenly the person in the London office who knew most about Russia, which wasn't much," he recalls. "But for my first year I was immersed in a Russian aluminium case, part of the aftermath of the 'aluminium wars', and I became fascinated by that world. Kroll and its ilk do lots of interesting work, but if it was Russian it always had an extra layer of interest to it."

The madness of Moscow is encapsulated in one chapter of the book, when Webster attends the birthday party of a wealthy businessman's daughter. All true, says the author: "A colleague of mine was in a Moscow hotel to meet a friend and found herself in the ballroom at present-giving time. The father unveiled his gift to his daughter, and it was a live crocodile." The little girl burst into tears.

Kroll was founded in New York in 1972 by Jules B Kroll, who is credited with inventing modern corporate investigation. During the Eighties, the consultancy grew alongside the financial industry, performing checks on potential investors and investments for Wall Street firms. Later it developed a security consultancy, and was brought in to improve security at the World Trade Centre following the 1993 bomb. Jules Kroll has suggested that better business intelligence could have forestalled the financial crisis, by warning credit-rating agencies of the dangers posed by subprime.

Much of Morgan Jones's work was due diligence for Western execs, as they purchased unknown companies from emerging economies; or internal investigations to ensure that, say, a US multinational's subsidiaries adhered to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. "Then there are legal disputes between one company and another," he explains. "We did Western-on-Western disputes; Western-versus-emerging-market disputes; even intra-emerging-market disputes, which are always the juiciest. We'd gather information to help them make a legal argument, or to help them negotiate."

There are, he suggests, still firms that will break the law to get such information: go through bins, pull phone records, hack voicemails. But Kroll isn't one of them. "When I joined, there was a culture of people who'd come from the police, or customs, or the intelligence services, who assumed they could draw on the old sources of information they'd always had... But by 2000, Kroll was a public listed company with a compliance department. I've had Russians say, 'I want to bug his phone; how do we do that?' And I would say, 'We don't.'"

Morgan Jones's next book is set in the Persian Gulf, and Kroll was recently responsible for an investigation into possible corruption in Bahrain. "I've worked for individuals, companies and even government," he goes on. "In the 1990s, Kroll was commissioned by the Russian government to try to recover FSB [the Russian security service] flight money. Before the collapse of the USSR, the intelligence services had networks of companies set up abroad to finance their operations. When the administration changed, a lot of people were scrambling around for power assets, and the FSB was reckoned to have taken an enormous amount of money outside Russia, so Kroll was hired by Yegor Gaidar, one of the early liberal prime ministers, to try to find it and bring it back. It was more or less impossible."

Morgan Jones is coy about comparing his work to Cold War spying, but says the stakes can be as high as they are in his novel – which, for its protagonists, means life and death. "Everything in the book has happened on one case or another. We had a source who, three or four months after we spoke to them, died in a car accident in Africa in rather suspicious circumstances. We'd done nothing untoward, but the case dealt with a sensitive issue that was worth a lot of money, and in Africa that sort of peril can still get you killed. On one Russian dispute case, someone who'd wronged one of the subjects of our case went missing. He left a nightclub and was never seen again. That was four years ago. I have my ideas about what happened to him... Trying to determine who has an interest in a business is critical in Russia. You have to map out the toes you don't want to tread on."

After six years on the Russian beat, Morgan Jones was made head of Kroll's London office, with responsibility for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. He eventually left the job not to write, but to set up a hedge fund. Writing, however, soon seemed like a more secure prospect than high finance. "I resigned from Kroll in April 2008, but I had six months' notice period. So I finally left a week after Lehman Brothers collapsed. My colleagues wet themselves laughing."

'An Agent of Deceit' is published by Pan Macmillan, £7.99