Banking – and I don’t mean only high finance – is such an integral part of our lives that we don’t really think about it unless there’s some sort of problem. And with today’s direct deposit, ATMs and electronic banking transactions we really don’t even need to go into a bank very often. And yet our financial lives are a part of who we are. So when there’s a crime, especially if the crime may have a financial motive, the police waste little time going into victims’ and suspects’ banking histories. And it’s surprising what they can find there. In fact there’s even a forensics specialty in accounting and banking. Detectives and attorneys use things such as ATM transactions and debit card purchases to marshal evidence for and against people too. With the prevalence of banking in our lives it’s no wonder it shows up so much in crime fiction. The topic of banking in crime fiction is quite broad so this post only gives me the space to touch on a few aspects of it. But a quick glance is all you need I think to really see how important banking and finance are to the genre.
Starting from the days of Arthur Conan Doyle and even before, bank robberies have been the subject of crime fiction stories. That’s what’s behind Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-Headed League. In that story pawnbroker Jabez Wilson is offered an opportunity that seems to good to be true. He is hired for good pay to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The only proviso is that he cannot leave his new place of employment while he is ‘on duty.’ Happy enough to comply with that rule he begins his job. All goes well until the day he goes to work only to find that his employers seem to have disappeared. Wilson asks Holmes to look into the matter and Holmes begins to investigate. He finds that Wilson was being manipulated by a gang of thieves who wanted to use Wilson’s pawn shop as a base from whence they would tunnel into the nearby City and Suburban Bank.
Bank robberies are also integral to the plots of Robert Pollock’s Loophole or, How to Rob a Bank and Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo. In both of those novels there’s a plan to use underground tunnels as a way to break into a bank. For those who are interested, I recommend reading Pollock’s novel first, since it takes place about thirty years before Connelly’s does, and it’s really interesting (or maybe it’s just me) to see how technology and bank security changed over time.
A bank robbery also plays an important role in Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf. In that novel, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are investigating the murder of Halldis Horn, who lived alone after the death of her husband. The evidence seems to point to Errki Johrma, who has mental illness and a very troubled personal history. But Sejer isn’t sure at all that Johrma is the killer. And since Johrma has disappeared, there’s no way to question him about the crime. Then, there’s a bank robbery to which Sejer is a sort of eyewitness. He’s passing by Fokus Bank, where he has an account. Not far from the bank he sees a young man who for several reasons makes him uneasy. When the man goes into the bank Sejer goes in too but then chides himself for being overly suspicious. Sejer leaves the bank but he’s only a few blocks away when he hears a shot. He returns to the bank to find out that the man he observed robbed the bank and has escaped. That robbery ends up being related, ‘though in an unexpected way, to the murder investigation.
Bank transactions themselves can provide clues to the motive for a crime and to the person who committed it. We see that all through crime fiction. For instance, under the name Emma Lathen, the writing duo of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart created a very popular series featuring banking vice president John Putnam Thatcher. He is employed by international banking giant Sloan Guaranty Trust. In that capacity, he oversees many of the bank’s transactions and gets involved with banking clients. And because of his knowledge of the way banking works, he’s often able to find financial clues that solve murders. For instance in Going For the Gold, the Sloan has been selected as the official bank of the 1980 Winter Olympics. Thatcher travels to Lake Placid, New York where the games are to be held to oversee the bank’s handling of the myriad transactions the games will generate. When one of the athletes is murdered, Thatcher discovers that the victim was involved in a traveller’s cheque counterfeiting scheme. Another athlete who works at a bank gives Thatcher important information as to exactly how the scheme worked in individual bank branches and he is able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Financial transactions are important, even if only mentioned briefly, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is on his way across Europe on the world-famous Orient Express train when he is stabbed late one night. Hercule Poirot is aboard the same train and his friend M. Bouc, a company director, persuades him to investigate. It’s soon discovered that Ratchett is not who he appears to be. In his real identity he’s hiding a dark secret that has everything to do with his murder. Ratchett’s past catches up with him in part because his murderer has discovered through his financial transactions exactly how he managed to escape it, so to speak.
Peter Temple’s Bad Debts introduces us to occasional lawyer and private investigator Jack Irish. When he gets a series of messages from a former client Danny McKillop, he doesn’t take them seriously at first. Then McKillop is murdered. Partly out of a sense of guilt for not paying closer attention to the messages, Irish begins to look into what happened to the victim. Eight years earlier McKillop had gone to prison for the hit-and-run killing of Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson. Irish’s investigation raises the strong possibility that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s death and that she was, in fact, deliberately murdered. With help from journalist Linda Hilliard, Irish discovers through financial and banking transactions exactly what the motive was for Jeppeson’s killing. Those transactions are also part of what leads him to the real killer.
A trip to the bank proves to be of vital importance in Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers. Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria are brutally murdered one night and Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team on the Ystad police force investigate the killings. It doesn’t look as though robbery was the motive; the couple was not known to be wealthy and besides, the murders are more brutal than one would expect in a case of robbery gone wrong. Just before she dies, Maria Lövgren says the word foreign, and that raises all sorts of suspicions, to say nothing of controversy. But a thorough investigation turns up nothing to connect the couple to any foreigners living in the area. Meanwhile the team looks in to Lövgren’s bank statements and financial records and uncovers some facts about his past that no-one knew. But Wallander still cannot make a direct connection between the killer and the victims. Then he visits the Union Bank, where Lövgren had a safe-deposit box. During his trip there he gets an unexpected clue and the same person later provides him with the conclusive evidence he needs to catch the killer.
There are plenty of other novels out there where the police trace bank transactions, debit card use and other financial clues that lead them to a criminal and a motive or that exonerate someone. It’s a realistic approach to getting evidence too since virtually all of us use banks in one way or another. When financial detail isn’t overly burdensome, it can add much to a story. Do you find that kind of investigation interesting? If you’re a writer, do you include banking when you plan motive or clue-gathering?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fred Ebb and John Kander’s Money Song.