Given our modern-day obsession with stock speculation, our frenzied sprint toward pre-IPO investment, and our fascination with the creation of overnight wealth, Janet Gleeson's Millionaire is timely, to say the least. The story of John Law's life and legacy is nothing short of incredible, breath-catching drama.
Born into a Scottish family of Church clerics and goldsmiths in 1671, John Law grew up to exude little of the moral and much of the monetary influence in his blood. When, as a 23-year-old gambler and philandering playboy on the London scene, he killed a nobleman in a duel, he was thrown into prison and sentenced to death. After pursing legal channels of appeal and getting nowhere, he eventually escaped and began the life of a gambler-cum-aristocrat in exile. His uncanny knack at the card tables and renowned success with women earned him a dubious reputation within late seventeenth-century European social circles. But his equally outstanding mathematical skills and fascination with the mechanisms of credit also brought him to the attention of political leaders. After attempting to peddle his revolutionary scheme for creating a national bank that issued paper currency to officials in London, Scotland, Vienna, Turin, and elsewhere, Law finally convinced the war-impoverished French government to back his plan. The bank's success and the events that followed--Law's introduction of the "Mississippi scheme," a wild exercise in capital procurement and share offering that spawned the greatest bull market in history and its drastic crash--make this book fascinating reading for anyone playing the markets today.
Gleeson writes with clarity and style on topics that are notoriously complex and potentially dry. Without dumbing down her subject matter, she elucidates the finer points of credit-based financial systems and stock markets in readable English, welcoming both finance aficionados and illiterates to Law's tale. In that regard, the book is similar to Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, and though ostensibly a record of the rise and fall of one of the world's most infamous--and ultimately influential--financiers, it is a story of murder, lust, politics, wealth, and poverty and far more intriguing than most fare in its often prosaic category. Indeed, this book will leap off your business bookshelf faster than you can ask who wants to be a millionaire. --S. Ketchum