Saturday, July 31, 2010

...But Your Love Won't Pay My Bills*

I’m neither an economist nor a crime statistics expert. But my guess is that there’s a relationship between financial stability and crime. Even if you look beyond the obvious desperation that poverty can cause, economic troubles are unsettling and can make people desperate. Desperate people sometimes go to desperate measures. We certainly see that in real life, and it seems to be true in crime fiction as well. Financial panic can make people do things they would never consider otherwise.

We see the way financial trouble affects people in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witnessd (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Wealthy spinster Emily Arundell dies of what at first seems to be liver failure. The only problem with that theory is that before her death, Emily Arundell wrote a letter to Hercule Poirot asking his help in a delicate matter. The letter didn’t go into specifics, but it intrigued Poiriot, so he and Hastings visit Market Basing, where Emily Arundell lived. By the time they get there, it’s too late; she’s already died. Still, the letter intrigues Poirot, so he starts asking questions. He finds that all of Emily Arundell’s relations have been desperate for money. Each of them has an equally plausible financial motive and what’s interesting is that not one of them seems to bear the victim any personal malice. It turns out that the killer was desperate to be out of a situation, and money seemed to be the best way out.

Financial desperation is also a theme in Christie’s Deah in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). Madame Giselle is a well-known French moneylender who’s en route from Paris to London. During the flight, she suddenly dies of what seems at first to be the sting of a wasp. Hercule Poirot is traveling on the same flight, and finds evidence that Madame Giselle was murdered. Now, Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp and Poirot work with the French authorities to try to figure out who the killer is. The circle of suspects is rather small, since only Madame Giselle’s fellow passengers had the opportunity to murder. As it turns out, several of the passengers were in financial straits and that desperation is, in fact, a few of them were acquainted with Madame Giselle for just that reason. In this novel, we see how financial concerns can drive a person to a moneylender.

Christie explores financial distress on a few levels in Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). In that novel, wealthy Gordon Cloade is tragically killed by a bomb blast just two weeks after he unexpectedly marries. This means that his widow, Beautiful young Roaleen Cloade, will inherit everything. Cloade’s relations had all been taught to expect that he would take care of them financially, so when they find out that he’s died without changing his will, they realize how financially dependent on him they’ve been, and how desperate they are. Then, a stranger comes to town who just may be Rosaleen Cloade’s first husband, long thought to be dead. If he is alive, that means that Roasleen cannot inherit. So the Cloades have a vested interest in vinding out who the stranger is, and they engage Hercule Poirot to find out if he is Rosaleen’s husband. Then, the stranger is killed, and Poirot is investigating not just an identity, but a murder. On another level, the novel explores the financial desperation felt by many in England in the postwar economy. Several characters refer to the increase in taxe and the difficulty in making ends meet. This theme is woven into the novel and adds an interesting level of tension to it.

Financial desperation is also addressed in Robert Pollock’s Loophole, in which Mike Daniels, a career thief, decides to rob the City Savings and Trust. To do the job, he hires three fellow criminals and Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect. In fact, it’s ‘s desperation that leads him to take up criniminal activity. He’s just lost his job, and as the months go by and he can’t find anything else, we feel how desperate he becomes. When he agrees to join the team, they make elaborate plans to break into the bank through the sweer system. Tragedy strikes on the day of the break-in, and everyone survives, but it’s an interesting study of what desperation will do to a person.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, wealthy Carey Lawton dies, leaving her fortune to her nephew, Mallory Lawson. The only stipulation is that he has to move with his wife, Kate, into her home, and hire her former companion, Benny Frayle. The Lawsons agree and all goes well at first. Then Dennis Brinkley, Carey Lawson’s financial advisor and the executor of her will, dies of what looks at first like a tragic accident. Benny Frayle finds his body under one of the antique torture devices he collects. She’s convinced that he’s been murdered, and it’s not until tater in the novel that Inspector Tom Barnaby and ASergeant Gavin Troy begin to treat Brinkley’s death as a murder. When they do, they find more than one suspect. One of them is Polly Lawton, Mallory and Kate Lawton’s daughter. She wants her share o the Lawton fortune, and takes a desperate financial gamble to get it. The gamble doesn’t succeed, and not she’s in dire financial straits. In Polly’s gamble, and her reaction to its outcome, we really see what can happen when someone is desperate for money.

We also see that in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalarahi Typing School For Men. One of the cases that Mma. Precious Ramotswe takes on in that novel is the case of Mr. Molefelo, a successful businessman. As a young man, he became desperate for money when he found out his girlfriend was unexpectedly pregnant. So he stole a radio from his kind landlord and landlady. Now, as a more mature adult, Mr. Molefelo feels ashamed of that theft, and wants to right the wrongs that he committed. So he asks Mma. Ramotswe to find his landlady and girlfriend so that he can apologize and make amends. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and is able to re-unite Mr. Molefelo with his former girlfriend and landlady. One of the things we see in this story is the way that real financial distress can make a person turn to crimes she or he would never have considered otherwise.

Sometimes, even the sleuth feels financial desperation. In fact, that’s how Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum turns to sleuthing. Her plan had been marriage to successful attorney Dickie Orr. That changed when she came home from work one day and found him with her rival, Joyce Barnhardt. As if that weren’t enough, Plum got laid off from her job as a lingerie buyer. Desperate for money, she turned to the only job that was quickly and easily available. Her cousin, Vinnie Plum, owns a bail bond agency and needed a new hiree to apprehend fugitives. So he hired Plum.

It’s easy to understand how desperate a financial crisis can make a person feel. So it’s logical to believe that someone in those straits might turn to crime – even murder. Which novels have you enjoyed that explore this theme?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roy Orbison's Money.


  1. I think the correlation was greater before prison sentences became a sure thing out here. Our crime has actually decreased in many places despite the wrenching poverty. But it makes a good motive, doesn't it?

  2. Patti - That's a really, really interesting correlation, and it makes a lot of sense. I hadn't thought about prison sentences, but it certainly "sits well" as a theory. And yeah, it does make a good motive...

  3. No books come tomind, but I think of all those black and white movies set in the Depression era 1930s. Many of the villains were not escaped cons, but also men who fell on hard times and turned to crime to maintain their lifestyle.

    Stephen Tremp

  4. This is a brilliant post because my major gripe with a lot of crime/mystery/any stories is the lack of weight behind the motives. Money is a motive, but it needs to be pretty severe before we contemplate smashing in Professor Plum's head with a candlestick in the conservatory!

    Loved this :-)

  5. Stephen - Oh, you are so right about those movies! And you reminded me of a book I wanted to mention in the post, but didn't - Mickey Spillane's The Big Kill, in which that's exactly what happens to William Decker. He gets involved in crime out of desperation, and ends up paying with his life. Thanks for the reminder : ).

    Charmaine - Thank you : ). And you're right; it's so important to have a motive for murder that we can actually really believe would happen. As you say, it's really hard to imagine killing someone for anything but a powerful motive. Some people really are greedy, but yeah, killing for it? I have to be convinced...

  6. What a wonderful set of examples. Thank you, again, Margot.

  7. Oh, Margot, you have no idea how relevant that title is in our household at the moment! Relationship between financial security and crime. Oh man, lets just say I need to make crime pay!

  8. Rayna - How kind of you to say such a nice thing; thank you : ).

    Vanda - I know exactly and precisely how you feel! Here's to royalties! I wish yours come in quickly and that they are generous...

  9. "Ghost in the Machine" is one of my favorite books! :)

    I think desperation can change ordinary people in unusual ways sometimes.

  10. Elizabeth - Isn't A Ghost in the Machine a terrific book?! And I agree completely that desperation changes the way people think and react. It can lead to all kinds of outcomes that make for effective plots... : )

  11. I think when it comes to money, even the wealthiest people sometimes become desperate. They have a lot (money, power, etc), but they want more and they will go to extreme measures to either obtain more or keep what they have. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  12. Mason - Thanks : ). And as always, you've got a well-taken point. How much is "not enough" really depends on one's perspective. Powerful, wealthy people do, indeed, feel desperate about money, even though we might think that people like that would have more than they could ever really need.

  13. Great theme. I think every novel has money as a motive or potential motive somewhere in there. I loved the AC book After the Funeral. The want of a small tea or coffee shop was the cause of many brutal deaths.


  14. Clarissa - I think you've got a point; most of the time, money (or lack of it) is at least one motive for murder. Feeling financially desperate affects people, I think, at a very elemental level.