One of the worst kinds of crimes, at least in terms of the scars it leaves, is the sort of crime where those in positions of a lot of trust abuse that trust and take advantage of those who are vulnerable. We see lurid stories of that sort of thing in the newspaper, on television and the Internet when, for instance, a teacher or parent abuses children, or a shady ‘charity’ bilks honest donors and worse, those for whom those donations were intended. Abuse of trust is also a major theme in crime fiction and that makes sense. First, it happens in real life so it’s realistic to have it play a role in a novel. Second, abuses of trust are fairly often crimes, and even when they stay just this side of illegal, they can lead to a strong motive for murder.
In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, what starts out as a normal summer term at exclusive Meadowbank School turns disastrous when games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And then there’s another murder. While Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode works hard to reassure parents that their daughters are safe, many of them feel that their trust in the school has been violated and they pull their daughters out. In the meantime, one of the pupils Julia Upjohn visits Hercule Poirot, who is an acquaintance of a friend of Julia’s mother. She tells him of the events at Meadowbank and he agrees to look into the matter. In the end, the murders and the kidnapping are all related to a revolution in a Middle East country and a cache of valuable gems. And many of the events in the story happen because Miss Bulstrode has put too much trust in someone – and made her school vulnerable.
There’s a chilling example of abuse of trust in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. When George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper, it’s obvious that they trust her with their home and possessions. And although the new housekeeper is a little eccentric, all seems to go smoothly enough at first. She certainly does her job well enough. But as we soon learn, Parchman is keeping a secret from her employers and she’s desperate to prevent them from learning it. And although she’s afraid of them on that score, she also has her share of contempt for them. When George’s daughter Melinda accidentally discovers what the housekeeper’s secret is, the result is tragic. What makes it all the more tragic is that much of what happens could have been prevented if the Coverdales hadn’t trusted the wrong person.
Susan Wittig Albert’s Chile Death also has as one of its themes the abuse of trust. Former attorney China Bayles now owns and runs an herb and spice shop called Thyme and Seasons. Her partner police officer Mike McQuaid is in a nursing home recovering from a line-of-fire shooting incident that has left him paralysed. So now he’ll have to re-think his life and his identity. Then, there are allegations of abuse at the nursing home where McQuaid is staying. There are even reports that the manager may be skimming money from the residents. Then a nursing-home employee is fired for stealing, but claims that she was framed. In the meantime, McQuaid is dealing with the major changes in his life and so is Bayles. To take him out of himself so to speak, McQuaid’s persuaded to serve as a judge for an upcoming chili cook-off. He’s reluctant to appear in public but he finally agrees. On the day of the cook-off, fellow judge Jerry Jeff Cody, an insurance executive, is poisoned. Bayles looks into the murder and discovers how it’s related to the abuses and fraud at the nursing home.
In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), Stockholm tax attorney Rebecca Martinsson returns to her home town of Kiruna when her former friend Sanna Strångard is accused of murder. Sanna found the body of her brother Viktor in a local church and alerted the authorities. That’s stressful enough for her but then it’s discovered that Sanna may have had a motive for killing her brother. She tells Martinsson that she’s innocent and asks Martinsson to defend her. Martinsson has her reasons for being reluctant but she agrees to take the case and begins to investigate. As she looks into the lives of the people in Viktor Strångard’s life, especially those involved in the church where his body was found, she finds quite a lot of abuse of the trust people often put in church leaders. And that strikes an all-too-familiar chord with Martinsson, whose reason for leaving Kiruna in the first place had to do with a breach of that trust.
Abuse of trust and taking advantage of those who are vulnerable plays a major role in Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness. Lisa Trammel’s mortgage is being held by WestLand Financial, part of WestLand National, an L.A.-based bank. When her husband Jeff leaves her, she’s no longer able to make payments on her home. The bank threatens foreclosure and she visits attorney Mickey Haller to get some help with her situation. Haller looks into the matter and finds some evidence that the bank may be engaging in fraudulent mortgage re-assignment, and he’s trying to use that abuse as the basis to re-negotiate his client’s loan and find a way to help her. Trammel has her own mental issues so instead of taking responsibility for her part in the foreclosure (she didn’t pay the mortgage or contact the bank to try to make some arrangement), she blames the bank entirely. In fact, she sets up a citizens’ action group and even pickets the bank, claiming its foreclosure policies are predatory and illegal. Then Mitchell Bondurant, the mortgage officer who was handling the Trammel account, is murdered in the bank’s parking lot. Trammel is accused of the murder and certainly she had motive. But as Haller looks into the case he finds that she wasn’t the only one. So now he has to look into the bank’s practices, Trammel’s claims of innocence and the personal relationships that Bondurant had at the bank to find out who is responsible for the murder.
Angela Savage’s PI sleuth Jayne Keeney looks into a case of abuse of trust in The Half Child. Frank Delbeck has hired Keeney to look into the death of his daughter Maryanne, who fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from the roof of the hotel where she was living. The official police report classified the death as a suicide but Delbeck doesn’t think his daughter killed herself. So Keeney travels to the town of Pattaya, where Maryanne Delbeck was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre. New Life is an orphanage that also has a facility for what are called ‘boarders.’ Those are children whose mothers or fathers have not yet given them up for adoption but are unable to care for them. The idea is that the children will stay there until their parents either relinquish them or get into circumstances where they can take care of them. As Keeney begins to investigate Maryanne’s death, she discovers some evidence that there may be some serious abuses of trust going on at New Life. There are hints that parents may be being illegally coerced into releasing their ‘boarder’ children for adoption. There is even the possibility that some of the ‘boarders’ are being stolen from their parents and given to unwitting adoptive families. Did Maryanne know or suspect what was going on? If so is that why she was killed? Or did Maryanne’s personal life (which also contained secrets) have something to do with her death? As Keeney sorts out this case, we see through the eyes of some of the mothers of the ‘boarders,’ as well as through the eyes of adoptive parents, what happens when the trust we put in official institutions is abused.
Abuses of trust are perhaps all the more serious because those who are victims are often vulnerable at the start. That’s in part why they make us so angry when they happen in real life. That’s also why they can resonate so much in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lefty Frizzell’s I Don’t Trust You Anymore.