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Ashland novelist takes on Third World corruption

There’s a lot of international intrigue out there — and a lot of shenanigans enabling the powerful to get rich at the expense of Third World people. That’s where our hero, Valentin Vermeulen, comes in.

He’s the protagonist in the third thriller novel by Ashlander Michael Niemann, titled “Illegal Holdings.” It launches with a book reading and signing at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 1 at Bloomsbury Books.

Vermeulen is a trouble shooter for the United Nations, making sure their considerable funds go to impoverished people in Mozambique, instead of large NGOs in the region, where the powerful are grabbing up valuable land. He discovers $5 million is missing from the funds, investigates why and finds his life in danger.

Niemann, an adjunct professor of International Studies at Southern Oregon University knows the territory. A native German, he met his wife and married her while an exchange student in the U.S. He came to know southern Africa while doing research there for his dissertation on regionalism.

The book leaps into action on its first pages, following a tangled web of computer spreadsheets, files and bank deposits, leading to the realization that an immense amount of money has been lost. Niemann says the novel, published by Coffeetown Press in Seattle, is founded on real-world geopolitics, stemming from when the Clinton administration started shifting foreign aid grants from corrupt governments to the NGOs — non-governmental organizations — which also proved not to be immune to corruption.

In the novel, the corrupt organizations try to hang their misdeeds on small, local NGOs who are actually trying to rebuild their societies, often after violent civil wars. The meaning behind the book title, "Illegal Holdings," plays out as the big NGOs corrupt the locals and illegally buy land through them. It all leads to kidnappings and gun play.

Niemann's earlier novels with this protagonist are “Legitimate Business” and “Illegal Trade.” The protagonist has the same U.N. job, with similar challenges, including fraud and human trafficking, which gives Niemann license to send him all over the world, always in new situations.

Niemann doesn’t follow the old British detective formula of slowly narrowing down suspects and nailing the culprit — nor that of the manly, violent and seemingly indestructible agent, such as James Bond and Jack Ryan. His favorite book — and inspiration for becoming an author in the genre — is John le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener,” featuring a gentleman spy working at a gentle pace in Africa to track down the dark forces of big pharma who took out his activist wife.

Very early on in “Illegal Holdings,” readers become aware who the bad guys are, so the problem becomes how this urbane and principled man will get the job done without getting blown away himself. He does have a gun, however.

“He has a strong sense of justice, Niemann says. "What drives him is he sees the wrong being done to those with the least power and he’s in a situation where he can change that a little bit.”

Niemann wanted to tell the story, but felt a thriller novel rather than nonfiction was the best medium for it. He recites an old African apothegm: “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.”

“He’s on the side of the grass,” which means the little people, he notes.

Niemann doesn’t view large foundations, NGOs and other such organizations as “evil,” but says they often have enormous power and bigger budgets than the countries they’re entering — and “they have their view of how things work, so it’s a question of who will check their power.”

The book received positive reviews in the prestigious Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Review, the former calling it “a well-plotted thriller (that) demonstrates once again the difference an honest man can make.”

Among his supporting blurbs is one from SOU Professor Ed Bttistella: “The real deal … Niemann knows his way around Africa and Vermeulen emerges as a tough and wily hero, backstopped by strong female characters.”

Niemann and his wife moved to Ashland a decade ago from Connecticut. He says he likes writing in the morning, often at the city library because of its “particular quality of noise. You don’t have to pay attention to it.”

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.