If you’ve ever thought, ‘If I only had some money, everything would be so much better,’ you’re not alone. It’s easy to see why people think that way. Money represents security, especially if you don’t have much of it. To other people it represents status and prestige. But does having a lot of money really make everything good? Well, yes in the sense that you don’t have to worry about whether the electric bill is paid and the car is in good working order. We need money for survival in today’s world. But having a lot of money brings with it its own stresses and trouble. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean.
Several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories touch on this theme of money, what it can do to people and the fact that having a lot of it isn’t necessarily a cure-all. In The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, for instance, Holmes gets a visit from Violet Hunter. She’s a governess who’s just had an extremely lucrative offer from Jephro Rucastle, who wants to hire her to teach and look after his six-year-old son. Violet isn’t sure she wants the job and Holmes has serious doubts too. The offer seems too good to be true and what’s more, Rucastle has made some seemingly inconsequential but odd requests of Violet. In fact, Holmes urges Violet not to take the position. But then, Rucastle increases his offer to the point where Violet can’t really resist it. So she takes the job and moves into the Rucastle home. Holmes has told Violet that if she needs him, she should contact him, and it’s not long before she does. Some strange and dark things are going on in the home and Violet soon sees that she’s in real danger. She writes to Holmes and he goes to the Rucastle home – just in time to save Violet’s life. This case turns out to be all about money.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile we meet Linnet Ridgeway, who’s not only beautiful, but has had money – a lot of it – all her life. And yet, her wealth can’t protect Linnet from everything. When she marries Simon Doyle and plans a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with him, she’s hoping all will go well. But she and Simon soon find that there’s a very unwelcome fellow passenger on the cruise: Simon’s ex-fiancée and Linnet’s former friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. Jackie’s managed to follow the couple everywhere they go and Linnet is, quite simply, frightened and vulnerable despite the security you would think her money would provide. When she is shot on the second night of the cruise, Jackie becomes the first suspect. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, works with Colonel Race to find out who the killer is. It turns out that Linnet’s wealth made her a very attractive target for a number of people.
Ross Macdonald addresses the whole issue of money and its effects on people in The Far Side of the Dollar. Ralph and Elaine Hillman are rich and successful. They have a life that most people would like. But all is not exactly well. They’ve been having difficulties with their seventeen-year-old son Tom, to the point where they’ve placed him in Laguna Perdida, an exclusive school for ‘troubled’ young people. Dr. Sponti, head of the school, is well aware of the Hillmans’ power and wealth, so he’s distraught when Tom disappears from the school. It’s not that he’s coldhearted about Tom, but he’s particularly concerned about the consequences for him if the Hillmans find out that Tom is gone. So he hires PI Lew Archer to find Tom and bring him back to the school. Before Archer even leaves Sponti’s office though, Ralph Hillman bursts in saying that Tom’s been kidnapped. Archer goes back to the Hillman’s home with Ralph, and agrees to work to find out who has Tom. It’s not long though before Archer realises that something isn’t what it seems in this case. For one thing, it soon appears that Tom may not be a kidnap victim at all, but may have voluntarily gone with his abductors. What’s more, neither Ralph nor Elaine is very helpful in finding their son. Then, one of the people Tom is with is killed. Then there’s another death. Little by little, Archer learns about the Hillman family dynamics, and the role that money has played in them. He also learns about the events in the family’s past that have led to Tom’s disappearance.
Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets introduces us to the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth, his sister Wendy and a group of their wealthy university friends have planned a skiing holiday in the British Columbia town of Trafalger over the Christmas break. Tragedy strikes when the SUV that the group has rented plunges into the Upper Kootenay River. Inside the police find Jason’s body and that of his friend Ewan Williams. Forensic evidence shows that Jason died as a result of the accident, but Ewan had been dead for several hours at the time the SUV went into the river. In fact, he died of blunt force trauma. So Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and Sergeant John Winters look more closely into the matter. They find that despite (maybe in part because of) the Wyatt-Yarmouth family’s wealth, they aren’t particularly happy. There’s a great deal of dysfunction in the family. When Drs. Jack and Patricia Wyatt-Yarmouth arrive in town to claim their son’s body, it’s even more apparent that their wealth has helped to skew their perceptions. I can say without spoiling the story that money is not the reason Ewan Williams has been killed. But it plays an important role in many of the characters’ views, assumptions and treatment of others.
We also see how being really wealthy has its own stresses in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise. Mike and Lindy Markov have been together for over twenty years, and have built up a very lucrative business together. In fact, they’re one of Tahoe, California’s most powerful couples, with lots of prestige and influence. But that money soon becomes a weapon and a real source of strife when Mike falls in love with his vice president for financial services Rachel Pembroke. In short order, Lindy gets a court order to leave their home and loses her position in the company. Desperate to get Mike back, and candidly, afraid of losing the money she’s gotten accustomed to, Lindy hires Nina Reilly to sue Mike. The case is complicated by the fact that Lindy and Mike were never legally married. So Mike has a very good legal argument that he owes nothing to Lindy. But Lindy was responsible for a lot of the business’ success. What’s more, she stayed faithfully with Mike for twenty years, living and being introduced as his wife. There are other arguments too that support Lindy’s claim, so Nina thinks she may have a case. The trial goes on and both sides of the case are heard. The jurors deliberate and a verdict is planned. That’s when there’s a shocking event that changes everything and ends up putting Nina in real danger. Throughout this novel, we see how money, rather than make everything all right, turns into a tool/weapon and an object of greed, and skews everyone’s perceptions.
I know there are a lot of other examples in crime fiction that show that money isn’t really the panacea people often believe it is. I think that if you asked most people whether they’d like a lot of money, quite a few would say, ‘Of course!’ But sometimes it’s good to remember that it can be a lot less stressful not to have extreme wealth, as fun as the prospect seems. Of course, that’s not going to stop people from wanting a lot of money. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the US Powerball Lottery jackpot is up to US$475 million. I’m off to buy a ticket for Saturday’s drawing; you never know…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love. Dare ya to try to get that song out of your head now. You’re welcome.