Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Follow the money..."

…is the advice given to investigative journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men as they try to uncover the truth behind the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate Hotel. It’s actually a wise piece of advice for sleuths, too. Very often, both in real life and in crime fiction, money is the key to finding out who’s behind a murder. When the sleuth is able to trace money to its source, it’s much clearer who might have wanted a victim dead.

There are a few ways in which a “money trail” can lead to a killer. The most obvious, of course, is to find out who, if anyone, stands to gain financially from someone’s death. That’s why wills figure so strongly in crime fiction. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Herclue Poirot investigates the murder of Emily Arundell, a wealthy spinster with some financially desperate relatives. By the terms of her will, her companion, Miss Wilhelmina Lawson, inherits her vast fortune, and Miss Arundell’s relatives try their best to break the will. In the end, Poirot finds out that Miss Arundell’s will does play an important role in her murder, but not the one that it seems to play.

Sometimes, the victim’s will doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s the case in Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Roger Ackroyd is a very wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon who’s stabbed one night while he’s sitting in his study. He has a vast fortune to leave, so the police look closely at his will. Since the will benefits several of the members of Ackroyd’s family, all of them come under a certain amount of suspicion. Especially suspect is his adopted son, Captain Ralph Paton, who’s desperate for money and who, in fact, has recently quarreled with Ackroyd about money. As Poirot learns more and more about Ackroyd’s family and relationships, he finds out that Ackroyd’s will doesn’t tell the whole story about who had a reason to kill him. It’s not until Poirot “follows the money” that he’s able to find the killer.

“Following the money” also helps Poirot in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), in which he solves the murder of Madame Giselle, a wealthy French moneylender. Madame Giselle has left a large fortune to her daughter, Anne Morisot Richards, but the police don’t suspect her of her mother’s murder. Madame Giselle was on a plane en route from Paris to London when she was killed, and Anne wasn’t on that plane. As Poirot investigates the other passengers on the plane, though, he finds that, in fact, Madame Giselle’s fortune played a key role in her death. When Poirot “follows the money,” he’s able to find out who really gained by her murder.

That’s also true in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the poisoning death of Philip Boyes, a bohemian author whose former lover, Harriet Vane, is on trial for his murder. When a hung jury gives Harriet a chance at another trial, Lord Peter Wimsey resolves to clear her name and find the real killer. Boyes’ will doesn’t help much; however, the more carefully that Wimsey and his confederates look into Boyes’ life and relationships, the more he comes to realize that money did play a role in Boyes’ death. In the end, a “money trail” of wills and secret embezzlement leads Wimsey to Boyes’ murderer.

There are, of course, many, many other crime fiction novels where the sleuth finds the murderer by figuring out who benefits directly from the victim’s death. That’s a logical strategy, too, given how powerfully motivating money can be. Sometimes, though, it’s not that simple. In some murder mysteries, the victim’s death doesn’t seem to give anyone a clear financial advantage. In those cases, the sleuth has to follow a more complicated “money trail.” That’s the case in many of Emma Lathen’s John Putnam Thatcher novels. Thatcher is a vice-president for the Sloan Guaranty Bank, so it’s through those sometimes-complex “money trails” that he finds murderers. For example, in Going for the Gold, Thatcher and some colleagues from the Sloan are attending the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. When a champion ski jumper is murdered while he’s in the middle of a jump, everyone leaps to the conclusion that it’s a terrorist attack. Soon, though, it’s found out that the victim was passing counterfeit traveler’s checks. This is Thatcher’s first clue that this murder had nothing to do with terrorism; in fact, it’s connected to a complicated scheme of counterfeit and embezzlement. Once Thatcher traces the money, he’s able to find out who murdered the victim.

We also see an interesting “money trail” in Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music. Tony Aliso, a Los Angeles film-maker with a very dubious reputation, has been found murdered and stuffed into the trunk of his Rolls Royce. The killing looks like a classic “Mob hit.” Although the police department seems uninterested in investigating the case, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch is assigned to it. He looks into Aliso’s finances to try to find out who killed him, and finds out that Aliso had a much more expensive lifestyle than his mediocre film-making should have given him. Bosch suspects a Mob connection, and begins to follow Aliso’s “money trail.” That trail takes Bosch to Las Vegas, where it turns out that Aliso was involved in a money-laundering operation for Joey Marks, who runs the Las Vegas “outfit.” Aliso was also involved with Luke “Lucky” Goshen, who runs a Las Vegas casino. Unfortunately for Harry, the “money trail” also leads him to a former lover, Eleanor Wish. Harry juggles his personal life, the investigation, and the “dirty laundry” he uncovers in the police department as he uses Aliso’s “financial footprints” to find out who’s responsible for the murder.

There’s also a fascinating, if more complicated, “money trail” in Christopher Reich’s The Devil’s Banker. That novel focuses on forensic accountant Adam Chapel, who’s recruited for Blood Money, a new organization formed to fight terrorism by tracing its financial backers. Chapel and his team-mates are soon on the trail of what looks to be a terrorist plot against the United States. The plot is apparently backed by Marc Gabriel, a mysterious and financially brilliant investor with a very capable team. Chapel’s Blood Money team is about to make an arrest when a bomb is detonated, killing four of Chapel’s colleagues. Now, Chapel’s more determined than ever to untangle the complex financial trail that leads from Gabriel to a plot to overthrow the Saudi Arabian government. He’s helped in his effort by Sarah Churchill, a member of the U.K.’s MI6 who’s much more accustomed to tracking terrorists through more conventional means. Together, they get to the bottom of the plot and find out exactly what’s behind this new terrorist threat.

Ed McBain’s Money, Money, Money gives readers another, somewhat more humorous, look at following a “money trail.” Former Gulf War pilot Cass Ridley has found she can earn a great deal of money by flying for a new employer – a drug gang that wants her to smuggle cocaine into the United States. When Cass is burglarized one night, and some of her money stolen, she decides to find out who stole the money and get it back. Cass’ search ends tragically for her, and the police of the 87th Precinct are put on the case. Detective Steve Carella of the 87th Precinct and Detective Ollie Weeks of the 88th Precinct work together, since Cass’ murder has crossed precinct boundary lines. They tie in the murder with Cass’ money, only to find that the Secret Service has gotten there ahead of them and changed Cass’ money for new bills. Now, the detectives have to solve not only the murder, but also the mystery behind the money. As it turns out, Cass’ murder, the Secret Service’s “stonewalling” and the “money trail” all lead to a large and powerful drug ring.

Since money is such a powerful motivator, it’s no surprise that it’s behind many murders, both real and fictional. It’s certainly not the only reason victims are killed, but gain is usually one of the first motives that the police consider. So mysteries in which money figures can be quite compelling and authentic. On the other hand, one criticism of “money trail” mysteries is that the financial aspect can be complicated and confusing. Tracing someone’s bank transactions isn’t nearly as lurid and “glamorous” as tracing that person’s love affairs, either. Still, “follow the money” continues to be a valuable “rule of thumb” for sleuths. What’s your view? Do you enjoy novels that focus on “money trails?” Which are your favorites?


  1. It's sad, but true. Money talks--and leads to murder. Some books do the money trail very well, while some writers tend to drone on and on. If you can pull it off--and pull it off well--I say, go for it.
    Love you blog, btw. I've given you the Happy Award at my blog. Swing by to pick it up. Congrats, Margot!
    Courtney Reese Blog

  2. Courtney - Thank you so very much for such a nice award : )! That means a lot to me. How very kind of you : ). I will display it proudly! I am glad you enjoy Confessions..... I'll think of those 10 thanks and post them tomorrow.

    You're right, too, that money talks, and those with a lot of it are able to accomplish what they want - including murder. When crime novels talk about the "money trail" in enough detail so that readers understand without, as you say, droning on, it can be very compelling. Authentic, too.

  3. Congratulations on the award, very well deserved.

    The money trail is an interesting aspect of murder. It can also be used as a red herring in murder cases. Sometimes the police automatically suspect someone because they are to gain from the person's death when in fact they have been set up by the real killer whose motive has nothing to do with money. Those twist and turns lead to interesting plots.

  4. Mason - Thank you! I was quite proud to receive it.

    You're aabsolutely right about how useful money can be as a "red herring" There are lots of novels in which it looks as though the motive for a murder is money, but when the sleuth digs deeper, it turns out that the motive was something else entirely.

  5. I think greed is one of the top motives for books and reality! It's always good to have a reliable motive when writing mysteries. :)


  6. I know that money plots are realistic, and when the plots involve strange or unfair wills, they may be fascinating, but when it is about business and such (things I don´t know the least about), they don´t grab me. But of course Strong Poison is an excellent story :D

  7. Elizabeth - That's a well-taken point. Greed really is a very powerful motive for a lot of things, including murder. That's part of what makes it such an appealing motive for murder mysteries that one writes.

    Dorte - I'm not as interested in finance and business, either, as I am in other things. Still, as you say, those kinds of motives are a part of real life. So it makes sense that they're frequently the focus of crime fiction. And as you know, I like Strong Poison very much, too, so I was happy to have the chance to mention it : ).

  8. That's a great summary of Trunk Music, Margot. What a memory you must have - all I can remember is that I enjoyed it, I don't remember any of those details! Thanks for sharing them. (I was actually rather put off the novel at the time by its title, once I realised it was to do with putting dead bodies in the boots (as we call them) of cars, but I am glad I was not put off, as I loved it along with almost all of Michael Connelly's other books.)

    I agree that money is usually the motive - I have lost count of how many crime fiction novels I have read where the motive(s) appeared to be something else, but boiled down in the end to money. The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin is one, but there are many others. (eg Core of Evil aka Still Waters, by Nigel McCreary).

    I like novels about finance and business, precisely because I don't belong in that world I suppose - novels on that topic tend to be quite disciplined and not self-indulgent I guess. (Asa Larsson being one example, Emma Lathen another.)

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Margot. I realise with my memory that I had better not commit any crimes. I could probably work out a fiendishly devious way to commit the crime, but then would forget all the details so my alibi would instantly collapse.

  9. Maxine - I'm so glad you liked Trunk Music, too; isn't it terrific? I agree that the title is a bit strange, but once one gets past that, what's not to love? I admit, that's biased, but folks, I do recommend the book.

    You've got such a well-taken point, too, that money is such a powerful motivator that it just seems to permeate crime fiction. Sometimes it's actual money; sometimes it's gain that boils down to money. Either way, it's greed.

    I'm not much a part of the money and finance world, either. In fact, I've often thought that if I ever had my sleuth investigate "funny" financial doings, I would have to take a class first, or "shadow" a most willing and patient expert. But it is fascinating, especially if the author does what Lathen does and explains matters finanical without resorting to jargon or condescension.

    Finally, I had to laugh at what you wrote about committing crimes. I think that the stress of remembering what lies one's told has to be just as taxing as the stress of actually having taken a life. Little wonder that Christie's Hercule Poirot has said that it's always easier to tell the truth, so in the end, even liars let the truth slip.

  10. I would love it if you would give my published book a try. It is Family Secrets or Lies by Debbie Steever. I have another one going through the publishing process as well and it should be out in a couple of months.It is called Dead at 30.
    Please give them a shot.

  11. Debbie - Thanks for your visit, and thanks for letting us know about your book.