Illegal Holdings, by Michael Niemann: Graft and Greed in Mozambique

Illegal Holdings ($14.95, 240 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-591-8) is the third book in a series featuring United Nations fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen. After a $5 million transfer in UN funds goes missing in Mozambique, Vermeulen discovers a deep vein of corruption involving land deals.

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“Up against a wall of deceitfulness and threats from hired assassins, a veteran investigator follows the money in a dangerous case of high-stakes duplicity…. the third case for Niemann’s hero, a slick sleuth in the 007 mold, deepens the portrait of contemporary Africa through its detailed descriptions of Mozambique and its culture.” Read more…

—Kirkus Reviews

“Niemann’s well-plotted third Valentin Vermeulen thriller (after 2017’s Illicit Trade) takes the U.N. investigator with a penchant for getting into trouble to Maputo, Mozambique, where he looks into a fraud case…. Niemann provides interesting insights into U.N. bureaucracy, developing countries, and global economics as he demonstrates once again the difference that an honest man can make.” Read more…

—Publishers Weekly

Legitimate Business and Illicit Trade were both hits with readers and critics:

Illicit Trade: “Intriguing … the unexpected resourcefulness that Vermeulen and Jackson each display in dealing with dangerous foes in their respective quests is highly entertaining.” —Publishers Weekly

 Legitimate Business: “The real deal[….] Niemann knows his way around Africa and Vermeulen emerges as a tough and wily hero, backstopped by strong female characters”—Ed Battistella, author of Sorry About That. The Language of Public Apology

UN fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen is on assignment in Maputo, Mozambique. His ho-hum task is to see if Global Alternatives is spending UN money the way they promised. The nonprofit was set up by hedge fund mogul Vincent Portallis to revolutionize development aid. The only upside for Vermeulen is the prospect of seeing his lover Tessa Bishonga, who is reporting on foreign land acquisitions in Africa.

When Vermeulen notices that a five-million-dollar transfer has gone missing, he is given the run-around. First he is told the files have been mislaid, then stolen, then he is assured that the money was never transferred to begin with. But the money was transferred, so where is it now? Vermeulen’s dogged pursuit of the missing transfer makes him the target of some ruthless operators. And once he meets up with Tessa, she is inevitably sucked in to the story as well, which turns out to be far more nefarious than either of them imagined. Now they are both in deadly danger.

Says Niemann, “Development aid is rarely about helping the poor. The interests of donors, be they governments, nonprofits or private interests, usually set the agenda. Mozambique is but one example. Illegal Holdings is, of course, fictional, but sadly, the reality not all that different.”

Michael Niemann grew up in a small town in Germany, ten kilometers from the Dutch border. Crossing that border often at a young age sparked in him a curiosity about the larger world. He studied political science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn and international studies at the University of Denver. During his academic career he focused his work on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region. For more information, go to:

Keep reading for an excerpt:

The restaurant could have been any truck stop anywhere in the world. Two shelves next to the cash register held more varieties of potato chips than Vermeulen knew existed. There were peanuts, too. A rack with yellowed road maps and cheap sunglasses. A rattling cooler displayed refrescos and domestic beer.

The rest of the counter was part of the restaurant. Against the back wall stood a large griddle, operated by a woman who was wider than tall. Anyone expecting an array of Mozambican cuisine would be disappointed. A picture menu offered hamburgers, chicken burgers, fried chicken, and toasted cheese sandwiches.

Billy Ray and Antonio ordered hamburgers. Tessa went to the toilet, and Vermeulen couldn’t make up his mind. What to eat when all choices are poor? He settled on a toasted cheese sandwich with tomatoes and went to use the facilities himself.

The restaurant had seen better days. The tables were wobbly and the chairs creaky. About half of the tables were taken, and the patrons gave the newcomers a quick glance before going back to their meals. Vermeulen sat down with the rest and ate his sandwich. Tessa munched on a bag of peanuts and drank a Coke. Vermeulen was tempted by the beer but decided against it. On a warm day like this, he’d just fall asleep in the car.

“What other project do you want to show us?” Vermeulen said between bites.

“It’s back the way we came, on the other side of the bridge,” Billy Ray said.

“I’d like to speak with a few of the farmers here,” Tessa said.

Billy Ray wiped some grease from his mouth. “I figured you would. It’ll take some time to set up, though. I didn’t know you were coming until last night. No time. But I’m sure we can arrange something for later. How long are you in Beira?”

“I have a week.”

“Hmm. That’s tight. You journalists need to spend time on the ground. Not just swoop in and out.”

“Believe me, I’d love to spend a month here, but nobody would pay my bills. So a week it is. I’d appreciate any help you can give me.”

“Sure. We’ll see what we can set up. Maybe there’ll be someone at the next stop.”

Billy Ray popped the last bite of hamburger into his mouth and pursed his lips.

“Pretty damn close to the worst burger I ever ate,” he said. “And I’ve had some doozies.”

They finished their meals, got back into the car, and drove back the way they’d come. As they reached the bridge, Vermeulen’s phone rang. It was Chipende.

“Sorry for leaving you yesterday. I got an urgent call from KillBill and had to meet with him. Did someone in the office answer a wrong number call?”

“You didn’t call when we agreed.”

“No, that’s when the kid called. It took a while to sort that out. I think I was about fifteen minutes late. A man answered. Did you see who?”

“Yes, I did. I’ll tell you later. What was the emergency?” Vermeulen said.

“Raul called the gang together for another job. This time it’s out of town. They drove off in their blue vans. I have no idea where they went. The kid can’t call me because they aren’t supposed to know he’s got a phone.”

“And you don’t know what the job is?”

“No, but it can’t be good. Probably roughing someone up. I’m on my way to Tica to warn the farmers. I have a bad feeling.”

“We’ve just left Tica,” Vermeulen said.

“You did? What were you doing there?”

Vermeulen turned and said in a low voice, “Getting a tour of the new project.”

“Global Alternatives?”


There was a long pause.

The Land Rover reached the bridge. From the corner of his eye, Vermeulen saw the glint of a vehicle through the bushes lining the approach to the bridge. He couldn’t tell its shape or color. The Land Rover started across the bridge. Vermeulen looked ahead through the windshield. Something moved across the road at the other end of the bridge. As they got closer, Billy Ray slowed more. A vehicle blocked the bridge. Vermeulen looked back. Behind them another vehicle rolled across the road.

“I found your blue vans,” Vermeulen said to Chipende and ended the call.

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