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Chasing Phil By David Howard. Book review.

March 11, 2018

Chasing Phil book cover

The first observation the wily con artist Phil Kitzer made when he first laid eyes on FBI agents J.J. Wedick and Jack Brennan was that they looked like a couple of feds. That was their first and unbelievable saving grace. The second was the pair’s ability to adapt to a rolling series of incidents in which the faint-hearted would have cracked, because of their combined lack of experience as undercover agents, and the bureaucratic red tape they had to wade through. They were often left with little or no back up to call on if it all went wrong. So began an extended operation which had only got off the ground through Brennan’s sheer bloody mindedness and belief that what Kitzer was doing was as bad as robbing a bank with firearms.

Today, white-collar crime has become commonplace and something to be stamped out as quickly as possible. In the 1970s, financial crime was not taken very seriously and the FBI, having taken a political pasting after Watergate, was not keen to do anything unduly inventive with regards to investigation (let alone be involved in a convoluted, hands on, intelligence operation lasting about a year).

With great foresight, Agent Brennan petitioned to be allowed to pursue Kitzer whom Brennan suspected was committing financial cons at a very high level, involving eye watering amounts of financial transactions in what could only be considered a monetary shell game.

Bear in mind that the agents worked in an era before the convenience of mobile phones, portable computers and all the other types of technological advances we now enjoy in surveillance and information gathering. Much of the investigation was down to face-to-face exposure, leg work and research done through reams of paperwork; as well as seat-of-the pants chutzpah.

Chasing Phil is one of the most tense and nerve-wracking non-fiction accounts I have ever read, because of the number of times the two agents came nail-bitingly close to being exposed; as well as the final outcome which set a new level for both undercover work and large scale crime investigation. There are also many insights into the moral difficulties of undercover agents when they adopt a persona and have to run with it. Chasing Phil is a testament to the two agent who had to hold their nerve, particularly as their investigation took them into some murky waters, and the next number in the growing body count connected to people the agents and Kitzer were doing business with might have been theirs.

Even though the events of the book took place in the 1970s, people essentially remain the same. For anyone wanting to write a crime thriller, this is an excellent book to really get under the skin and into the mind of a highly charismatic individual manipulating the world of finance to their own avaricious ends.

Chasing Phil was courtesy of Pan Macmillan via NetGalley.

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