Neil Irwin's The Alchemists delivers on its promise: the book is a central banker's view of the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis and the more recent (and related) Euro Crisis. Only the subtitle disappoints: The Alchemists isn't quite the story of the three central bankers depicted on its cover (Bernanke, Trichet and Mervyn King). Rather, The Alchemists offers a thorough treatment of Bernanke's crisis-plagued tenure at the Fed and insightful coverage of the ECB's Trichet - until Trichet morphs into Mario Draghi just in time for the worst of the Euro Crisis. Plus the odd bit of Bank of England's Mervyn King thrown in for comic relief. No doubt Irwin's project was inspired by Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, which treats four central bankers (their philosophies and their quirks) from the 1920s: the UK's Montague Norman, France's Emile Moreau, Germany's Hjalmar Schacht and the Fed's Benjamin Strong. Now these were central bankers: they dominated the monetary policies of their day.
Our contemporary central bankers lack some of the color of their predecessors (save Mervyn King, who is pretty darn colorful). Moreover, their field of action is much more circumscribed. They can be checked by other personalities within their respective institutions, by intimidating political leaders, and by uncooperative markets. These bankers do manage, at least in this account, to largely have their way in responding to the crises, through will and manipulation, and by playing on the palpable belief that no one else has any better idea of what to do.