Saturday, April 9, 2011

'Cause I'm the Taxman*

Most of us don’t think it’s much fun to pay taxes. And yet, we do pay them and that’s a good thing. Financial irregularities tend to make the authorities suspicious, and once the authorities do suspect something like tax evasion, they usually pursue it. Relentlessly. Just consider the case of famous Chicago gangster Al Capone. As you probably know, although he was no doubt responsible for several murders, he was never arrested for murder. In the end, he was arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned for tax evasion. It was the financial authorities who found a way to catch Capone. In crime fiction, too, we see how playing fast and loose with finances can trip a person up. Sometimes it even leads police to a murderer.

That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). In that novel, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to investigate a series of odd thefts and other events going on at a hostel for students. At one point, it seems that the matter is resolved when Celia Austin, one of the residents, admits that she’s responsible for most of the thefts. Two nights later, though, Celia dies of what seems at first to be suicide. Soon enough, though, it’s proven that she was murdered. Now, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe have to look into the lives of the other residents to find out who would have wanted to kill Celia. What they find is that Celia Austin had stumbled onto more knowledge than was safe for her to have. One of the main clues in this crime is some financial “funny business.” As one of Sharpe’s men says:

“Inland Revenue. Always snooping around asking embarrassing questions. It’s not so difficult to make money…but it’s hell and all to account for it once you’ve got it!”

Once that tax evasion is discovered, it leads the team to one important reason Celia Austin was murdered.

Financial scheming and fraud also play an important role in Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Beautiful and notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With her are her husband Kenneth and her stepdaughter Linda. Soon after the Marshalls’ arrival, gossip begins to spread about Arlena Marshall’s budding relationship with fellow guest Patrick Redfern. One day, Arlena is found strangled on a beach not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the hotel at the same time as the Marshalls are, and he gets involved in the investigation. The most likely suspect is Arlena’s husband Kenneth; however, he’s got a strong alibi, so the police and Poirot have to look elsewhere for the killer. Interestingly enough, finances shed a lot of light on this crime. One character, for instance, makes a suspiciously good living and when the police learn why, they also find out that Arlena Marshall might have discovered the reason, too, and been killed to silence her. And when Arlena’s own finances are examined, they, too, give a good clue as to what happened to her. It’s an interesting case of alert and careful tracking of money being very useful in solving a crime.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins finds himself in a difficult tax situation in A Red Death, and it gets him into very deep trouble. Rawlins isn’t an officially licensed private investigator (although he does get his license later in the series), but he does do “favours for friends.” One such favour has earned him ten thousand dollars which he hasn’t exactly declared as income. This decision comes back to haunt Rawlins when he gets a letter from an Internal Revenue Service agent threatening him with jail if he doesn’t pay the entire amount of tax and penalty that he owes. Since Rawlins can’t possibly pay that much money, he’s mentally preparing to go to jail. Then, he gets an unexpected way out of his financial mess when FBI Agent Darryl Craxton makes him an offer. If Rawlins helps the FBI bring down a suspected Communist, Craxton will see that Rawlins’ tax problems go away. Seeing no alternative, Rawlins agrees. He soon faces a dilemma, though, when he finds himself becoming friends with his target, former Polish Resistance fighter Chaim Wenzler. Once he gets to know Wenzler, Rawlins no longer has any stomach for trapping him; however, he sees no other option. Then, there’s a sudden death. And then two other murders. Now it looks as though Rawlins himself is being targeted and he has to find out who the murderer is, and how the murders relate to his work with Wenzler.

In David Dodge’s Death and Taxes, we meet George MacLeod, a successful San Francisco accountant. He’s made a good living finding every tax advantage for his clients, and has the reputation of using creative tax loopholes that don’t raise too many eyebrows. MacLeod gets more than he bargained for when he agrees to help beautiful Marian Wolff resolve a messy tax issue. He’s been offered a large fee if he’ll help Marian avoid tax evasion charges and get a tax refund even though she hasn’t filed recent tax returns. It turns out that not only is Marian Wolff’s tax situation more complicated than MacLeod thought, but also, her father is wealthy bootlegger Harald Wolff. This means connections with all sorts of unsavoury people. So MacLeod asks his partner James “Whit” Whitney to come back early from a vacation in Santa Cruz and help with the Wolff case. By the time Whit returns to San Francisco, it’s too late. MacLeod’s been shot. Now, Whitney has to finish Marian Wolff’s tax return and find MacLeod’s killer if he can, before he becomes the next victim.

Financial intrigue is also at the heart of Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. When wealthy Carey Lawson dies, she leaves quite a lot of her fortune to her nephew Mallory and his family, provided they move into her house in the village of Forbes Abbott and employ her companion Benny Frayle. The Lawsons agree to these conditions and soon settle into their new lives. Tragedy strikes when Benny discovers the body of her friend Dennis Brinkley, who’s also the Lawson family’s financial consultant, under one of the medieval torture machines in his collection. At first, Brinkley’s death looks like a tragic accident, but Benny is sure he was murdered. She persists in her belief and finally, Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy look into Brinkley’s death. While they’re on that case, there’s another suspicious death. Barnaby and Troy find that the two deaths are connected, and that financial scheming is behind both of them. Interestingly, this story also has a sub-plot that focuses on one character who makes a very naïve attempt at financial trickery – and fails miserably.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s About Face, in which Commissario Guido Brunetti and Maggior Felippo Guarini of the Caribinieri work together to investigate illegal transportation practices. The first hint of wrongdoing comes from one trucking company owner’s clumsy attempt to “cook the books.” The investigation into that fraud is underway when the owner is killed. This death and the illegal transportation case seem to be connected to an informal investigation Brunetti’s making into the financial affairs of Maurizio Cataldo, who wants to do business with Brunetti’s father-in-law Conte Falier. Falier has asked Brunetti to “vet” Cataldo before agreeing to any kind of deal. As Brunetti learns more about Cataldo and his enigmatic wife Franca Marinello, he finds that this financial investigation leads to a group of very dangerous people – and the solution to three murders.

You might not think that financial matters are very intriguing, but as you can see, they can be far from boring. They can even be the key to a murder case. That’s one reason that the field of forensic accounting’s grown in recent years. So don’t forget to file your taxes and keep your financial house in order…or maybe I’m just feeling self-righteous because I’ve filed my taxes for the year ;-).

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles' Taxman.


  1. Well done on doing your taxes in time Margot, always a bit of a struggle I know. My only enjoyment at tax time comes from deciding what unnecessary item I will spend my refund on

    You have raised some fine examples of financially-based crime fiction...of my recent reads the most relevant addition to this list would be Alan Glynn's WINTERLAND in which all the crime is really related to someone's desire to see his shaky financial security survive the current collapse of the Irish economy.

  2. Bernadette - Ah, yes, there is always that refund to think of, isn't there :-). I'm old enough to remember when it could take over a month to get one's refund. Now with modern banking, it just takes a week or two.

    And thanks for mentioning Winterland. That one's a brilliant example of what a person will do for financial security and how it affects people when they lose that security. Folks, do check out Bernadette's review of Winterland.

  3. Enjoyed the Emma Lathem mysteries set in the financial world.

  4. Patti - Oh, I liked them, too :-). I actually almost mentioned them, but didn't. So I'm glad you did :-).

  5. Taxes and the financial world are a perfect background for murder and mayhem.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Oh, yes they are :-). All sorts of things can go wrong, and people can get very passionate about money. It makes for a suspenseful background.