It is difficult--but not, as we shall see, impossible--to write a poor book about the Swiss banking system; both as myth and reality, it is a subject that never ceases to fascinate. Unlike other international outlaws, the bankers of Switzerland exhibit no uncontrollable proclivity for exotic headgear or for hanging enormous photographs of themselves from the walls of public buildings. No, they are men much like you and me, trustworthy, honest, upstanding, discreet, kindly and law-abiding, sturdy citizens of an Alpine commonwealth whose order, cleanliness and prosperity are the envy of the world--and where, by a happy chance, many things regarding money that are wildly illegal everywhere else on earth are not illegal (or at least, not very illegal) at all. It ought to be common knowledge by now, as Brazil teeters on the brink, that the thoughts of bankers are a mirror image of the thoughts of other men, and nowhere is this axiom more arrestingly visible than in the Swiss confederation, where the possession of money and the means by which it was obtained are entirely different matters.

Money, like warfare, is a topic too important to be left in the hands of professionals; generals and bankers exhibit a deplorable tendency to lay waste to the countryside, and tacticians and economists have a way of uttering their explanations as though they were strangling on false teeth. With the international banking system in a tremendous shambles just now, one would think that a book on the Swiss depositories was just what the doctor ordered, considering the central role they have traditionally played in laundering funds that might otherwise be traced to their owners. I regret to report that such a book remains to be written, although Nicholas Faith's "Safety in Numbers" is not without its merits.

He locates, correctly I think, the origin of the Alpine bankers' almost amoral tolerance of their depositors and their stubborn resistance to outside interference. It lies in the ethnic diversity of the country and the peculiarly Swiss notion of the gemeinde, "the gathering of all the male inhabitants of a commune which the Swiss still cherish . . . as the embodiment of their ideals," prominent among which is fierce resistance to the wishes and laws of others. As Faith points out, the Swiss national hero, William Tell, is a tax evader.

There is an engaging chapter on the rise of Geneva as a major financial center following Louis XIV's expulsion of the Huguenots, a number of whom fled to the city and proceeded to loan their former persecutor money for his foreign adventures, linking the interest payments to the life spans of the famous Thirty Maidens, young girls of good family who were expected to live for a long, long time. It was an ingenious system but not a foolproof one: Witness "the general mourning when the wretched Pernette-Elizabeth Martin died at the tender age of eight, taking with her 2 million francs in interest payments deferred."

At the heart of the book is Faith's explosion--albeit at staggering length--of one of the most cherished Swiss myths, that their renowned banking secrecy is designed to prevent the blackmail of their clients, and that it was originally imposed to protect Jewish deposits from the inquiries of the Gestapo. Not so. As embodied in clause 47(b) of the Swiss Banking Act of 1934, mandatory bank secrecy was merely the codification of existing practice, and the outside pressure was exerted by the perfectly legitimate activities of the French police, not the Germans. Gestapo inquiries came later and concentrated largely on the deposits of non-Jewish German citizens. Latter-day wishful thinking notwithstanding, the Swiss authorities were not overly welcoming to Jewish refugees; bankers and industrialists remained confident of German victory until 1944, and proved more than willing to provide the Nazis a neutral depository for their funds, a means of concealing their foreign assets, and a channel for disposing their stolen gold.

It is here--and in Faith's subsequent description of the virtually solitary (among the Allies) attempts of the Americans to penetrate the banking secrets--that the book shines; other chapters, alas, leave much to be desired. Faith's apparent determination to list each of the 6 million Swiss by name causes a certain amount of clutter, his section on wartime currency transactions makes no sense, and he fails to explain why the nationalization of the Swiss railways released an enormous amount of bank-swelling capital. He assigns Carlos Marcello, the reputed Mafia boss of New Orleans, to a premature grave, his description of the vigorous investigations of U.S. attorney Robert Morgenthau lacks focus and point, the last quarter of the book, dealing with recent attempts by the Swiss government to bring the banks to heel, is poorly integrated, he has failed to grasp the importance (and peril) of interbank transactions in the Euromarket, and when he touches on the participation of the Banque Populaire in the silver-cornering scheme of 1979 he concentrates on a footnote and misses everything of importance.

Still, one must not be too harsh. The core of the book is sound, the subject is arresting, and Faith's anecdotal approach is entertaining, taken in small doses, even where it fails to instruct. The subject is large, complex, and not well explored by the more popular and accessible writers; "Safety in Numbers" is by no means the definitive text, but it qualifies as a good place to start.