Sometimes it seems as though there are a lot of ‘hoops to jump through’ as the saying goes when we want to get certain things done. Do you really need that marriage certificate to prove your love? Can’t you raise a child in a loving and caring way without an adoption decree? And do you really have to have purchase papers for a friendly exchange of an auto for money if the two people involved know each other? The fact is that there’s a lot to be said for ‘paper trails’ and legal documents. They can do a lot to protect a person. Just a quick look at the way they’re used in crime fiction should show you what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice as you read this that there won’t be any mention of wills. Too easy!
Agatha Christie uses marriage documents more than once in her novels. For instance, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Chief Inspector Japp investigates the shooting death of Henry Morley, a seemingly inoffensive dentist who is killed during his surgery hours. Since Hercule Poirot is one of his patients and actually had an appointment on the day of the murder, Japp seeks his help in the case. Morley didn’t have dangerous enemies, nor did he have a fortune to leave. So there seems no motive for the murder. Shortly after Japp and Poirot begin their search for answers, one of Morley’s patients dies of an overdose of anaesthetic. Then another disappears. It’s now clear that this case is complicated. As Poirot discovers, a marriage certificate plays an important role in this novel.
A marriage certificate – or rather, a lack of one – plays a crucial role in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise. In that novel, Tahoe, California attorney Nina Reilly gets a new client Lindy Markov. Lindy has been living with Mike Markov for twenty years, and in fact helped him build an extremely successful business. She recently found out that Mike was having an affair with his company’s vice-president of financial services Rachel Pembroke and now, Lindy’s been served with an eviction order. She’s required to vacate her home, and it doesn’t look as though Mike is planning to provide for her in any way. Lindy wants Nina Reilly to defend her interests in a civil suit. Reilly agrees, but she knows that this will be a difficult case. Lindy and Mike were never legally married, so Lindy has no legal claim on any of Mike’s money or other assets. There’s not a lot of court precedent for such cases either. Still, Reilly pulls a team together and they work hard to prepare for the trial. The trial starts and a jury is seated. After contentious testimony and even more contentious debate among the members of the jury, a verdict is reached. Then, a shocking event changes everything about the case.
A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife also addresses the issue of a marriage certificate. Jodi Brett is a successful Chicago psychotherapist who’s been in a relationship with developer Todd Gilbert for twenty years. The two have never been legally married, but Jodi regards Todd as her husband. Then, Todd has an affair with a college student Natasha Kovacs, who is the daughter of Todd’s longtime friend Dean Kovacs. Todd’s been unfaithful before and Jodi has dealt with it. But this time it’s different because Natasha gets pregnant. What’s even more shocking for Jodi is that Todd decides to leave her and marry Natasha. Then comes even more unpleasant news. Through his attorney, Todd serves eviction papers to Jodi, and she’ll be forced out of their home. When Jodi sees a lawyer, the first point brought up is that she was never legally married to Todd, so she has no legal claim on his home or his assets. Then, Todd is murdered and everything changes.
C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye deals with a different kind of legal ‘trail’ – adoption papers. Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the loving adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. They adopted her legally, so they have the paperwork to support their claim to her. Then, they get the devastating news that all is not as much in order as they thought. Angelina’s biological father is eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland. At the time of her birth, he never waived his parental rights and now that he is of legal majority, he’s chosen to exercise them. Moreland has never been the least bit interested in Angelina, so the McGuanes do not believe that he wants to be a real father to her. In fact, they strongly suspect his motives. But he won’t sign the papers granting the McGuanes full custody, and he is supported by his father, who is a powerful local judge. So when the McGuanes refuse to relinquish Angelina, Judge Moreland serves them with a court order that gives them twenty-one days to relinquish custody of Angelina. This the McGuanes vow not to do, and they decide to do whatever is necessary to keep Angelina. ‘Whatever is necessary’ turns out to be much more than either of them imagined…
One of the most difficult ‘legal trails’ to follow is paperwork regarding works of art. For one thing, people do sell art informally sometimes, so there isn’t an official set of transaction papers. For another, some people are willing to pay for art without asking too many questions. So the matter of the art’s provenance doesn’t come up. But art can be extremely valuable, so proof of ownership can become a matter of real importance. That’s what we find for example in Aaron Elkins’ Loot. Art historian/expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call one day from an acquaintance Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop. Pawlovsky thinks that a painting he’s just gotten in may be valuable, and he wants Revere to look at it. Revere agrees and discovers that Pawlovsky is right: the painting is very likely a valuable Velázquez that’s been missing since World War II. When Pawlovsky is murdered shortly afterwards, Revere decides to try to trace the painting and therefore, possibly find out who the killer is. It turns out that this painting was one of many stolen by the Nazis and now there isn’t a clear ‘paper trail’ leading to its current legal owner. Revere untangles the messy question of ownership and that information helps lead him to the killer. What’s interesting too is that readers get a look at questions of provenance and how one actually goes about proving that a) a painting is genuine; and b) it is legitimately owned by a given person/family.
In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, it’s property ownership documents that become vitally important. DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper are called to the scene when a female skeleton is found at Pity Wood Farm in England’s Peak District. Shortly afterwards, another female skeleton is found. The current owner of the farm is attorney Aaron Goodwin, who bought the land for development purposes. He claims to know nothing about the remains; in fact, he has no real connection to the farm other than as its owner. So although he’s still a suspect, Fry and Cooper also consider other possibilities. Before Goodwin bought the property it was owned for many years by the Sutton family, most recently by brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek has died, but Raymond is still alive and in a care home. He claims to know nothing about the deaths and forensics evidence supports him. The bodies were apparently buried after he sold the farm. So now the team has to find out who actually owned the farm, who actually lived there, and what the young women were doing there if they’re going to find the killer.
Legal documents can be the source of an awful lot of conflict. But they are often very effective sources of protection. Sometimes that ‘piece of paper’ isn’t meaningless at all…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Marx and Bruce Gaitsch’s Don’t Mean Nothing.