It’s easy enough to make wise decisions when things are going well. But it’s less easy to predict what we might do if our world were suddenly turned, as the saying goes, upside down. That seems to be especially true about financial security. People who suddenly find themselves in a financially desperate situation, or a situation they see as desperate, may find themselves doing things they would never consider doing otherwise. Financial desperation adds a severe burden of stress and can completely change one’s perspective on “the right thing to do.” In crime fiction it can be a motive for murder but even when it isn’t, that kind of desperation can add suspense and a layer of character development to a story.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet the members of the Cloade family. They’ve always depended on patriarch Gordon Cloade for financial security and he’s always promised his younger brothers and sister and their families that they would never need to worry. But then, everyone’s shocked when Cloade gets married to the much-younger Rosaleen Underhay. He and his new bride have only been married a few weeks when Cloade is tragically killed in a wartime bomb blast. Now the Cloade family is faced with a real financial problem: Gordon Cloade died intestate. So his widow Rosaleen will now inherit his considerable wealth. The Cloades are all accustomed to depending on Gordon Cloade for financial support and now have to face the real prospect of loss of income. Then a possible solution to their problem comes to town in the form of a stranger who says he may have news of interest to them. It seems that Rosaleen Underhay may have been married to someone else at the time of her wedding to Gordon Cloade. If she was, then she was not legally married to Cloade and so, cannot inherit. The visit of this stranger, who calls himself Enoch Arden, throws all of the Cloades, including Rosaleen, into turmoil. Then, Enoch Arden is killed. Hercule Poirot is asked by two members of the Cloade family, on two separate occasions, to look into the matter of the identity of this stranger and he begins an investigation. As he searches for the truth, we see just what financial panic can do to people.
We see that also in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola. That’s the story of the disappearance of Melanie Akande, who went to keep an appointment at the local Employment Bureau and never came back. Her father Raymond Akande is DCI Reg Wexford’s physician, so he asks Wexford to look into the matter. Wexford agrees somewhat reluctantly and begins to ask some questions. Then, Annette Bystock, the jobs counselor with whom Melanie Akande had her appointment, is murdered. Now Wexford and his team begin to concentrate their efforts on the Employment Bureau and we see how the desperate need for money and the stress of being unemployed can weigh on people. When the body of a young woman is found in a nearby wood, Wexford thinks it’s the body of Melanie Akande. It turns out though that it’s not Melanie Akande. Now Wexford and his team have an even more complicated story to unravel. All throughout this story there is the theme of money, of unemployment and of financial desperation. In fact, it even strikes the Wexford family. Wexford’s son-in-law Neil Fairfax loses his job and he and Wexford’s daughter Sylvia have to completely re-think their lives, their relationship and more. Here’s how Neil himself puts it:
“…being unemployed demotes you.”
It’s an astute observation.
There’s also a sense of financial desperation in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. Crime reporter Hannah Vogel lives and works in Weimar Republic Berlin, a time of financial desperation and real poverty during the Great Depression. She considers herself very lucky that she’s got a job and doesn’t have to resort to prostitution to be able to buy food, as many women do during that time. When Vogel discovers by accident that her brother Ernst has been murdered, she’s shocked and of course, wants to know what happened to him. But she’s in a very delicate situation. She and Ernst lent their identity papers to some Jewish friends to allow them to leave Germany. Her papers haven’t yet been returned to her, so she can’t call any more attention to herself than is absolutely necessary. Still, she goes to work very quietly, looking into Ernst’s murder and trying to find out what she can. She gets another surprise when a young boy named Anton, who claims to be Ernst’s son, shows up on her doorstep, saying she is his mother. Vogel knows that’s not true but she takes Anton in and does her best to feed him and take care of him. That includes pawning some jewellery to get what money she can. As it turns out, Ernst Vogel wasn’t murdered for money, but throughout this novel, we see just how financially desperate people are, and how the burgeoning Nazi Party uses this desperation for its own ends.
In Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, which takes place in the early 1950’s, former aeroplane mechanic Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins finds himself in a very desperate financial situation. He did a “favour” for a friend, for which he earned quite a lot of money on which he never paid taxes. He gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence claiming that he owes the IRS thousands of dollars in back taxes and threatening Rawlins with imprisonment if he doesn’t pay. Rawlins can’t pay, and he’s sure that he’s bound for prison. Thenl he’s given an unexpected way out. FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away. In return, Rawlins must agree to help the FBI bring down a suspected communist named Chaim Wenzler, who’s a former member of the Polish Resistance. Wenzler does volunteer work at the First African Baptist Church, so the plan is for Rawlins to do the same and get close to Wenzler. Rawlins has no way out of this situation, so he agrees. But matters get extremely difficult for him when he gets to know Wenzler and finds he actually likes the man. Then, two bodies are found in the church, and since Rawlins was there at the time of the murders, he’s a prime suspect. Now he has to find out who the real killer is before he’s jailed himself. Rawlins finds himself in this situation in part because he’s caught, as the saying goes, between a rock and hard place financially.
And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water. In that novel, the body of Vigatà businessman and politician Silvio Lupanello is found in The Pasture, a notorious area outside of town. One of the men who find the body is Baldassare “Saro” Montaperto, who gets a small salary for helping to clean up trash at The Pasture. Saro finds more than he bargained for when he discovers a valuable necklace near the place where Luparello’s body is found. Instead of turning the necklace over to the police, which is what he’s supposed to do, or to Gegè Gullotta, who runs The Pasture, Saro keeps the necklace. Ordinarily, Saro isn’t a thief, but he has a desperately ill son and very little money – certainly not enough for the boy’s medical treatment. Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate Luparello’s murder and in the process, find that the necklace could be an important piece of evidence. Montalbano finds out that Saro took the necklace and why, and comes up with a very clever way to recover the necklace and still make sure that Saro’s son gets the treatment he needs. It’s an interesting sub-plot to this novel.
Just about all of us probably have a point of financial desperation at which we would do things that we’d never consider doing otherwise. When that happens in crime fiction, it can make for a solid layer of tension, an interesting sub-plot, and a good motive for murder.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray Charles’ Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I). The Eric Clapton version of this song is terrific, too.