Today, Mason Canyon at Thoughts in Progress discusses what it would be like to win the lottery. And that post has got me thinking about lotteries, sweepstakes and what happens when people’s lives are changed by sudden wins. A quick look at crime fiction shows that winning the lottery doesn’t always turn out to be the dream a lot of people think it is.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey takes a chance on the Irish Sweepstakes and comes out a winner. She decides to spend a week at Le Pinet like her wealthy clients do. On her way back to London, Jane gets drawn into a case of murder when one of her fellow airline passengers Marie Morisot is killed by what turns out to be a poisoned dart. Hercule Poirot is on board the same flight and in fact, the coroner’s jury suspects that he is guilty because the supposed murder weapon is found behind his seat. Poirot and Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp investigate the murder and discover that more than one passenger on the plane could have had a good motive for killing the victim. Marie Morisot was a well-known moneylender who used damaging information about her clients as collateral for loans. In the end, and with help from Jane, Poirot discovers who the killer is. Certainly winning the lottery doesn’t turn out to be the fun adventure that Jane Grey thought it would be.
Becoming a lottery winner isn’t exactly ‘Easy Street’ for JoLayne Lucks either, as we learn in Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You. JoLayne buys a lottery ticket that turns out to be one of two winners, each worth US$14 million. When she learns that she’s won, she decides to use her money to buy a piece of Florida land and turn it into a preserve. Her goal is to keep that land out of the hands of some ruthless developers who have their eyes on it. But then her ticket is stolen by a group of neo-Nazis who want to use the money to finance a militia. Features writer Tom Krone of The Register has been assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne Lucks, so when her ticket is stolen, he gets drawn into her plot to get the ticket back from the thieves. Krone just wants to write a prize-winning story but instead he and his subject get caught up in a religious scam, a battle with land developers and their thugs and of course, the people who stole the ticket in the first place.
In Ruth Rendell’s The Lake of Darkness we meet Martin Urban, a quiet, conventional and conservative bachelor. He takes a chance in a football pool and surprisingly, ends up being a winner. He decides to give half his money away to worthy causes and that’s when things start turning disastrous. For one thing, he gets involved with Francesca Brown, who seems on the surface to be a shy, quiet, unhappily-married woman with a young daughter. Urban finds her irresistible but what he doesn’t know at first is that she isn’t at all what she seems. It turns out that Francesca is keeping some very ugly secrets. Then, when Urban decides to give some of his winnings to his mother’s cleaning lady Mrs. Finn, he has no idea of what the consequences will be. But then, he doesn’t know what Mrs. Finn’s son is really like… In the end, it’s not really cliché to say that the football pool win draws Urban into a nightmare.
And then there’s Mary Higgins Clark’s Alvirah Meehan, a former cleaning lady who’s just struck it rich in a forty million dollar lottery win in Weep No More, My Lady. She decides to spoil herself with a trip to Carmel, California’s Cypress Point Spa. But what she doesn’t know at first is that her lottery win will mix her up into the case of a celebrity murder. A year earlier, famous actress Leila LaSalle was killed, allegedly by her lover Ted Winters. Leila’s sister Elizabeth Lange is trying to recover from the tragedy and has come to the spa at the invitation of the owner Minna ‘Min’ Von Schreiber, who was a friend of Leila’s. Also at the glamourous spa is Ted Winters. Elizabeth isn’t convinced that Ted is guilty and begins to ask questions. The more she investigates, the more danger there is for her. In the meantime, Alvirah Meehan has arranged with Charley Evans from the New York Globe to write a feature article (with his guidance) about being a lottery winner. Meehan falls easily into the role of a writer, but her interest in writing and in the celebrities at the spa get her into danger too when she begins to get close to the truth about what happened to Leila LaSalle.
Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case) tells the story of a group of lottery winners who aren’t exactly as lucky as you’d think. Waldemar Leverhuhn and a few of his friends go in together on a lottery ticket that turns out to be a winner. The group decides to go out and celebrate the win, and that night, a rather drunk Leverkuhn makes his way home. When his wife Marie-Louise arrives home from a trip to visit a friend, she finds her husband brutally murdered and calls in the police. Intendant Münster and his team investigate, beginning with the members of Leverkuhn’s family. They soon run into a proverbial brick wall because Leverkuhn’s wife was away that night and his grown children don’t live in the area. Besides, there seems no real motive for killing him. Then the team learns about the winning ticket and begins to investigate the group of friends with whom Leverkuhn bought the ticket. That’s when they discover that one of those friends has gone missing. As the investigating team sifts through the evidence and learns about Leverkuhn, they find that his life was more complicated than it seemed on the surface. You could say that in this case, past deeds are directly related to Leverkuhn’s murder.
Perhaps the most chilling story of a lottery (at least the most chilling I’ve ever read) is Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story The Lottery. That’s the story of a small village and an unusual annual lottery. Every year, the residents of the village gather together, and each family draws a ticket from the same box – a box that’s been used for this purpose since anyone can remember. As the story goes on, we find out the real truth behind the lottery and we follow what happens when one particular family draws this year’s winning ticket… Want to read it or re-read it yourself? Here it is.
So go ahead. Be my guest. Buy a lottery ticket. You may end up being the lucky winner who takes it all. Just don’t blame me for what happens afterwards…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Nilsson’s The Lottery Song.