Most of us have money concerns at least every once in a while. It’s usually not because we’re greedy (although there are of course greedy people out there). It’s really because of what money represents to us – security. Let’s face it; in today’s world, money is necessary to meet even our most basic needs. Without money, our sense of security is threatened and that can make people desperate, even if relatively small amounts of money are at stake. Desperate people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. So it’s not surprising that an urgent need for money can drive people to crime, both in real life and in crime fiction.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), wealthy Emily Arundell has a nearly-fatal fall down the stairs in her home. As she’s recovering, little pieces of evidence suggest to her that her fall was no accident. And that realisation doesn’t surprise her. She’s got two nieces and a nephew, all of whom are desperate for money. She doesn’t want to go to the police about the matter as the family’s reputation is at stake. So she writes a letter to Hercule Poirot asking him to look into the matter. By the time Poirot gets the letter, though, it’s too late; Miss Arundell has died of what seems at first to be liver failure. It’s not, though, as Poirot discovers once he begins to investigate. He and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing where they look into the lives of Miss Arundell’s relations and her companion Wilhelmina “Minnie” Lawson. They learn that, for different reasons, just about everyone in Miss Arundell’s life was frantic about money. That urgency – that sense of desperation – is what eventually drove the killer to strike.
We also see the true desperation that money problems can cause in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. In that novel, Mike Hammer is in a seedy bar drowning his sorrows when a man and his toddler son come in. The man, who we later learn is William Decker, then has two drinks in quick succession, kisses his son and leaves the bar without the boy. As he leaves, he’s struck by a hit-and-run driver and then shot. Hammer rushes out of the bar but doesn’t get there in time to save Decker. He does, however, take the boy in and decides to find out why Decker was killed. Hammer soon discovers that Decker was a former safecracker who’d decided to “go straight,” mostly for the sake of his son. But he needed money. So, being at his wits’ end, Decker got mixed up in a robbery scheme with some unsavoury people. At first, it appears that he was killed because he’d bungled a job. It’s not as simple as that, though, as Hammer discovers. In this story, Decker’s need for money drives him to do things he had sworn he wouldn’t do.
In Robert Pollock’s Loophole or, How to Rob a Bank, Stephen Booker finds himself frantic about money. He’s an architect who loses his job and can’t find another. He finally gets a low-paying job as a night-shift cab driver, but it doesn’t come close to paying the bills. Then one day he meets Mike Daniels, a professional thief. Daniels is planning a major heist of the City Savings Deposit Bank and when he meets Booker, he realises that Booker has just the skills he needs for the job. At first, Booker demurs, but his money fears are so great that he falls in with the group’s plans. Together, the team members plot a robbery that will make all of them wealthy. One of the interesting things about this novel is the way Stephen Booker’s views of right and wrong change as the book goes on. His real need for money plays a very clear role in what he is and isn’t willing to do.
Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone also addresses what happens when people become desperate for money. Commissario Guido Brunetti is called to the scene when an unidentified Senegalese immigrant is shot, execution-style, at an open-air market. No-one saw very much that’s helpful, but from the bits and pieces he’s able to learn, Brunetti finds out where the victim lived. When he and Ispettore Vianello search the dead man’s possessions, they’re shocked to find a hidden cache of valuable diamonds. The more they look into the matter, the clearer it becomes that the diamonds are “conflict diamonds,” traded for weapons used to arm rebels against African governments. As it turns out, the dead man was desperate enough for money that he risked his life for the diamonds and in the end, that’s why he was murdered.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men, we meet Mr. Molefelo, a successful civil engineer. When he has a near-death experience, he suddenly realises how short life is, and wants to set a few things right. Years earlier, when he was a student, he boarded with the very kind and helpful Mma. Tsolamosese and her husband. At the time, he also had a girlfriend Tebogo Bathopi. When Tebogo told him she was pregnant, Mr. Molefelo refused to be responsible for the child. The only alternative was an abortion, which neither could afford. So, feeling that he had no choice, Mr. Molefelo stole a radio belonging to his hosts and sold it to pay for the abortion. Now, he deeply regrets both the theft and the way he treated Tebogo. So he asks Mma. Ramotswe to help him find both Mma. Tsolamosese aTebogo, as he wants to make amends. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and tracks down both women, allowing Mr. Melofelo the chance to make things right.
There are also, of course, plenty of sleuths whose money worries drive them to take cases or to get into the business in the first place. For instance, Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins gets into the sleuthing business in Devil With a Blue Dress when he loses his factory job and can’t pay his mortgage. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum becomes a bounty hunter because she gets laid off from her department-store job and is worried about paying her rent and other bills. And Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford form the Young Adventurers Ltd. in The Secret Adversary because neither of them has a job and they need money. There are other examples, too.
Sometimes it doesn’t even take a huge amount of money to make a person desperate. Even worrying about smaller amounts of money for the basics like food, rent or mortgage, electricity and so on can be enough to drive one to do all sorts of things. It’s certainly true in real life and we see it in crime fiction, too. That makes sense, really. Not only is such a plot line realistic, but it can also add a very effective layer of tension. But what’s your view? Do you think the “desperate for money” theme is overdone?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Low Budget.