Weekend Book Review: The Informant

I’ve had Kurt Eichenwald’s The Informant on my reading list for a long time. It dropped farther down the list after seeing the previews for the Steven Soderbergh movie. Why read the book when you can watch the movie?

What raised my interest was hearing a great radio segment from This American Life that tells some of the background of the price fixing conspiracy and FBI cooperating witness Mark Whitacre: The Fix is in.

I have to admit that while reading the book, I had the image of Matt Damon in my mind as the character of Mark Whitacre. The other image that stands out is the scene in the movie previews with Damon (playing Whitacre) as he is fiddling with the hidden tape recorder in his briefcase. As you can see from a video of the meeting, Whitacre really did open open up the hidden compartment and check out the tape recorder.

The true story in the book is a crazy tale. Whitacre came forward as a cooperating witness to the FBI, telling them that his company, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), was engaged in price-fixing for the global market for lysine. The allegations quickly spread to other products and to kickbacks. Whitacre was a great witness, eagerly taping conversations of illicit activity and clearly willing to take down his colleagues and management of the company.

The story wanders a bit, periodically gets stagnant, then explodes as new secrets are revealed. The author, Kurt Eichenwald, tells the story from the perspective of the FBI. If the story were not true, it could have been streamlined and the characters could have been explored in more depth. But it’s a true story with real people. So you have to let the story evolve as the FBI uncovers more and more of the activity of ADM, and unfortunately more and more of the activity of Whitacre.

Whitacre had problems. These problems become apparent and worsen as the story progresses. The perfect witness ends up not being so perfect. Inconsistencies begin to appear and then grow worse.

Kurt Eichenwald covered the story for The New York Times and interviewed most of the participants in writing the book. He tells the story by methodically recording the six-year investigation and deconstructing the disturbed Whitacre.

Add the book to your reading list and move it towards the top.

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