Category Archives: Robert Pollock

Don’t Let it End*

One Book AuthorsEvery month, a lot of terrific new crime fiction is released – enough to keep TBR piles and lists from ever actually shrinking. Erm – please tell me I’m not the only one with that problem. Please??  And there are authors such as Michael Connelly and Katherine Howell, who consistently keep their series going with high-quality stories. Interestingly enough though, there are also authors who write one or a few books and then stop. Of course there are a lot of reasons for this. Authors go on to different things, or have to deal with poor health, or something else happens. You wish they’d written more perhaps because that one (or those two) novels were well-done. There are a lot of them out there, and of course, they are not just crime fiction authors, but this is a crime fiction blog, so….

One of the most famous examples of a one-novel author is Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is, in my opinion anyway, a crime novel as much as it is anything else. Among other plot threads, Mayella Ewell claims that she was raped by Tom Robinson. Her father supports her and Robinson is arrested and nearly lynched. Complicating matters is the fact that this is Maycomb, Alabama, at a time when racism was a way of life. Mayella Ewell is White, and Tom Robinson is Black, which means he’s not likely to get a fair trial. Well-known lawyer Atticus Finch takes Robinson’s case, determined to see that he does get a fair hearing, and as the town prepares for the trial and deals with its aftermath, we see the effect that even alleged crime can have on a small community. There are of course a lot of other themes in this novel; whole university courses are devoted to it. And it won many literary prizes. And every year, the University of Alabama School of Law and the American Bar Association (ABA) award the Harper Lee Prize For Best Legal Fiction. This novel has had a real impact on modern fiction, to say the least. But it’s Lee’s only novel.

Also from the American South was James Ross. He’s said to be ‘the man who invented Southern noir.’ Written in 1940, Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much is the story of down-and-out farmer Jack Macdonald, who’s just lost his property due to non-payment of taxes. Macdonald’s friend Smuts Milligan owns a local store, but wants to expand it into a roadhouse and dance hall. Macdonald begins working for his friend and the two of them start to develop Smuts’ plans. When the business doesn’t go as well as they’d hoped, Smuts becomes desperate for money and as any crime fiction fan can tell you, financial desperation leads to all sorts of things. In this novel, it leads to brutal murder. Not a novel for the faint of heart, but it established Southern Gothic noir. And it was Ross’ only novel.

British author Robert Pollock didn’t write a lot of novels either. If someone else knows his work better than I do, please correct me. But it seems he only wrote four novels (although he wrote some non-fiction too). One of those novels is Loophole or, How to Rob a Bank. It’s the story of professional thief Mike Daniels and his team, who put together a plan to rob London’s City Savings Deposit Bank. They enlist the help of laid-off architect Stephen Booker, and before long, all of the details are worked out. On the day of the planned robbery, everything is ready. But no-one has planned for the sudden storm that blows up during the heist. I’ll confess this is the only one of Pollock’s books that I’ve read. Still, I don’t think this is part of a series. I sort of wish it was though, or at least that Pollock had continued writing caper/crime novels.

Mary Semple Scott also wrote only one crime novel, 1940’s Crime Hound. St. Louis investigator Herbert Crosby, who works for the DA’s office, decides to take a lakeside holiday. But he soon gets drawn into murder when a shady realtor he had an appointment with is murdered. When his own gun is stolen and later used for two other murders, it’s clear that Crosby is being set up. If he’s going to avoid going to jail himself (something the local sheriff would like only too well), Crosby is going to have to find out who’s framed him. It would have been interesting to see what Scott could have done with Crosby’s ‘regular guy’ character in a series.

There’s also David Markson, who wrote only two crime fiction novels featuring his New York PI sleuth Harry Fannin. In Epitaph For a Tramp, Fannin helps solve the murder of his ex-wife, whose body is found on his doorstep. And in Epitaph for a Dead Beat, Fannin investigates three murders that show just how deadly the literary world can be. Markson of course went on to become famous for his postmodern literary works, but the two Fannin novels are, so far as I know (so correct me if you know better) the only crime novels he wrote. For pulp crime fiction fans, they’re part of the canon.

And then of course there are more recently-published authors who’ve only done one or two novels, but who you’d love to see do more. Or at least do them more quickly. For instance, Adrian Hyland has written two novels (Diamond Dove/Moonlight Downs and Gunshot Road) featuring Aboriginal Community police officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest. There’s yet to be a third, although I hope that will change soon. Very soon.

These are just a few examples of authors who’ve only done one or two novels, but a lot of people wish wrote more. Which one-novel (or a few novels) authors do you wish wrote more?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Styx.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, David Markson, Harper Lee, James Ross, Mary Semple Scott, Robert Pollock

Oh Well I Heard a True Confession*

Talking to Total StrangersIt’s interesting how sometimes people tell things to complete strangers that they wouldn’t necessarily tell even to a good friend or family member. In some ways, odd as it seems, strangers can be easier to talk to, since they have no stake in a problem. Then too, a stranger is someone one may very well not see again, so there’s less risk in unburdening oneself. Of course, when that happens in crime fiction, you never know quite where it will lead…

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion in the village of St. Mary Mead (and oddly enough, she doesn’t meet Miss Marple…). When her employer dies, Katherine unexpectedly inherits a fortune. She decides to use some of it to travel, something she’s never had the luxury of doing before, and decides to start by visiting some distant cousins in Nice. Katherine’s taking the famous Blue Train to Nice when she meets wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on the same train. Ruth is dealing with some personal problems and a dilemma, and Katherine strikes her as a sympathetic sort of listener. So Ruth unburdens herself at least to an extent. It turns out that her conversation with Katherine is one of the last that Ruth has before she is murdered that night. So when the train stops at Nice, the police want to interview Katherine and before she knows it, she’s embroiled in a murder mystery. Hercule Poirot has also come to Nice, and he works with Katherine and the police to find out who murdered Ruth Kettering and why.

A train is also the backdrop for Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train trip to visit his estranged wife Miriam. He’s unhappy in his marriage and has a lot on his mind. So when he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s also on a journey, he’s happy for a sympathetic listener. Bruno too has his share of troubles. He’s got a very dysfunctional relationship with his father, and finds Haines a pleasant person to talk to about it. Then the conversation works round to a solution that Bruno proposes. His idea is that each man will commit the other man’s murder. Since neither man has a motive to commit ‘the other murder,’ the police won’t get suspicious. Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously at first, but confiding in a stranger gets him into serious trouble when Bruno kills Miriam and then demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain.

A chance conversation in a taxi gets architect Stephen Booker involved in crime in Robert Pollock’s Loophole or, How to Rob a Bank. Booker has been laid off from his job with an architect firm, and hasn’t been able to find another in his field. So, in order to make ends meet, he’s taken a night job as a taxi driver. That way, so he thinks, he can use his days to keep looking for a new professional position. One night, his passenger is professional thief Mike Daniels. Daniels and his team of fellow thieves are planning to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. But they’ve run into several logistics obstacles since the bank is well-protected and equipped with the latest in security devices and procedures. Daniels is an affable person and not a bad listener, so it’s not long before Booker tells him the story of his job loss and his frustrations. When Daniels learns Booker’s story, he realises that Booker could be just the man who could help the team get past the bank’s security barriers. So Daniels cultivates a friendship with Booker and then proposes that Booker join the team. Booker finally agrees and the team prepares for the robbery. Everything is planned down to the last detail. But no-one has anticipated the major storm that blows in unexpectedly…

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, art expert/historian Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. Pawlovsky has just gotten a painting that could be worth something and he wants Revere’s professional opinion. Revere agrees and takes a look at the painting. It turns out that it’s likely an extremely valuable Velázquez that was one of many ‘acquired’ by the Nazis during World War II. When Pawlovsky is murdered, Revere thinks that perhaps finding out how the painting got into the shop will lead to the killer’s identity. So he starts tracing the painting forward from when the Nazis took it to the present day. Before his death, Pawlovsky had arranged for Revere to meet his grand-niece Alexandra ‘Alex’ Porter. When the two meet for the first time, Alex finds Ben pleasant to talk to and ends up telling him a lot about her family background. In turn Ben finds her pleasant to talk to as well, and it’s interesting to see how the opportunity to talk to a stranger is helpful to them both. In fact, Alex proves to be a useful ally as Ben traces the painting and in the end, finds out the truth about Pawlovsky’s murder.

There’s a very interesting kind of opening up to a stranger in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s all ready for this next phase of her life when some disastrous financial decisions mean she has to sell her beautiful home. As the novel begins she’s had to take the house next door to her dream home – a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ As if that’s not bad enough, new neighbours buy her perfect home and move in. As it is, Thea isn’t much for company and would prefer to keep as much to herself as possible. But Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have bought Thea’s dream home and she thinks of them as ‘the invaders.’ Thea is a very private person who tells very little about her life to anyone. But she and Frank eventually do develop a kind of rapport. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Elllice. Perhaps because Kim’s not threatening, and perhaps because Thea recognises real talent when she sees it (Kim is a born writer), Thea strikes up a friendship with Kim despite her dislike of strangers. And for her part, Kim likes Thea very much despite her prickliness. They end up telling more about themselves to each other than either thought would happen. But that’s precisely what leads to tragedy when Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing a safe and appropriate home for Kim…

We normally think of sharing confidences with trusted friends and family members. But it’s odd how sometimes, people feel most comfortable talking with a stranger on a bus, a park bench, or a gym. And I haven’t even mentioned the myriad novels in which it’s the sleuth who’s the sympathetic stranger…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Bartholomew and Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino’s True Confession.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan

I’m Just a Poor Soul in the Unemployment Line, My God, I’m Hardly Alive*

UnemploymentIf you’ve ever been unemployed, you know the mix of fear and shame that being out of work can bring. There are of course people who don’t want to work. But the vast majority of people without jobs are not unemployed because they like it that way. On one level, the most basic of levels, unemployment threatens one’s security. Even for people who live in countries that have social ‘safety nets,’ unemployment means re-thinking every purchase. It means possibly having to leave one’s home. It means a struggle to provide the barest essentials. On another level there’s the whole matter of social perception. People who are unemployed, especially if it’s for more than a brief period, are often looked at with pity or worse, with hostility (i.e. ‘Why don’t you get off your lazy a*** and get a job!’). On yet another level there’s the deep sense of shame one feels when one doesn’t have work. After all, many people’s identities are tied up with what they do. I’ll bet when you meet someone for the first time, one of the questions that invariably get asked is, ‘What do you do for a living?’ So it’s not surprising that being unemployed deeply affects the way we act, the way we think and the way we look at the world. And it can drive people to all sorts of things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Little wonder then that unemployment is a thread that’s woven through a lot of crime fiction. Let me just give a few examples.

Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is the story of Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a charwoman. Everyone in the village of Broadhinny thinks that Mrs. McGinty was murdered by her lodger James Bentley. And there is evidence against him. And yet, Superintendent Spence thinks Bentley may be innocent, so he asks Poirot to go to Broadhinny and look into the matter. One of the things that Poirot finds out quickly is that there’s a lot of local prejudice against Bentley. He had a job at an estate agent’s office but lost it and hasn’t been able to find another. That in itself is a major strike against him and it deeply affects his already shaky self-confidence. In fact, Bentley is so lacking in self-respect that he sees little point in re-investigating the case. Fortunately for him, Poirot doesn’t see things the same way and is able to find out the truth about Mrs. McGinty’s death.

In Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill, we meet William Decker. He’s a former safecracker who’s decided to ‘go straight’ mostly for the sake of his son. But it’s hard to find a job and after all, one can’t feed a child on good intentions. So Decker takes a fateful decision. One day, Spillane’s sleuth Mike Hammer is in a seedy bar when Decker comes in with his son. He downs two drinks in quick succession, says goodbye to his son and leaves the bar. Seconds later he’s knocked down in what looks like a hit-and-run incident. Hammer dashes outside in time to see that this is no ordinary hit-and-run tragedy. The passenger in the car that struck Decker also shot him to make he was dead. Hammer takes in Decker’s son and determines to find out who’s behind the murder. It turns out that Decker was desperate for money and got mixed up with a local criminal gang. At first it looks as though members of that gang killed him as punishment for bungling a job. But the reality turns out to be quite different.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole takes a solid look at several levels on which unemployment can wreak havoc on a person. Stephen Booker is an architect who’s just lost his job. At first, he works hard to find another, but he’s unsuccessful and begins to sink into depression. Finally, he settles for the only thing that he can find: a job driving a cab at night. He doesn’t earn much money but his self-respect and his marriage are suffering and he’s desperate for whatever he can get. Booker’s cab driving puts him in touch with professional thief Mike Daniels, who’s busy planning a major heist. He and his team want to break into the City Savings Deposit Bank. When Daniels discovers that Booker is an architect by background, he decides that the team could really use Booker’s expertise to perfect their plan. At first Booker refuses. But his sense of self-respect and his dire financial straits finally convince him that he ought to go along with the gang and that’s what he does. On the day of the break-in, all is planned and ready until a major storm comes through and changes everything. Now, Booker, Daniels and the rest will have to fight the weather as well as look out for the police and security staff if they’re to get their haul.

Ruth Rendell’s Simisola takes a close look at the financial and social consequences of unemployment. Twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande wants to find a job and get her adult life started, so she schedules an appointment at the local employment bureau. Shortly after that appointment she disappears. Her father, who’s a doctor, asks his patient Reg Wexford to look into the disappearance and after a few days, Wexford does so. He and his team are just beginning to ask questions when the body of Annette Bystock is discovered. It was with Bystock that Melanie Akande had her appointment so the investigation team starts to focus its attention on the employment bureau. As the team members interview the bureau’s employees and those who make use of the employment service, we see the effects of not having a job on everyone’s perceptions. For example, those who apply for help are given appointments and then made to wait, sometimes for hours, until someone actually sees them. And those who work at the bureau don’t all have what you could call compassionate attitudes. On the other hand, not all of the job applicants are hard-working people who have simply had a tragic piece of bad luck. In the meantime, Wexford’s son-in-law Neil has lost his job. He is hardly perfect, but we see in his response to being unemployed how frustrating, enervating and humiliating it can be to be jobless. Rendell doesn’t offer easy answers to the problem of unemployment, which is just as well; there aren’t any. But she does invite the reader to think about how being unemployed affects one’s sense of self-worth and one’s choices. She also invites readers to think about the effects of others’ perceptions of those who have no jobs.

There’s an unflinching look at that perception in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. That novel’s main plot is the investigation into the murder of Tasmania police sergeant John White, who is stabbed when he and a colleague Lucy Howard are called to the scene of a break-in. The prime suspect for the crime is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from Glenorchy, a low-income suburb of Hobart. Police Commissioner Ron Chalmers is furious that one of his best men has been killed and is only too happy to write Darren Rowley off. As we learn more about Chalmers, we also learn his attitude towards those without jobs, especially those who live in places like Glenorchy. Here’s a bit of the way he compares the unemployed residents of Glenorchy with other people:

 

‘One generation of normal, sane, hardworking, decent, contributing human beings as opposed to two generations of dole-bludging, thieving, fighting pieces of trash.’

 

Chalmers’ attitude about the unemployed is extreme. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t shared by a lot of people.

That social perception of unemployment as a disgrace, combined with the sense of personal shame and of course, the fear of not being able to survive, makes having no job a very stressful situation.  Sadly, it happens to millions of people so it’s no surprise that crime writers explore the problem. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. There are many more.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Blue Collar Man (Long Nights). Readers who are kind enough to check this blog regularly may remember that I just used this song a few days ago. Usually I don’t do that, but this part of the song reflects the reality for a lot of people without jobs.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane, Robert Pollock, Ruth Rendell, Y.A. Erskine

Well, You Say That I’m an Outlaw*

Criminals as ProtagonistsIn crime fiction, we usually think of the protagonist as ‘the good guy’ – the one who catches ‘the bad guy.’ But people who break the law can also be really interesting protagonists and even sleuths. Having a criminal as a protagonist gives a really interesting perspective on a crime. It also allows for some solid depth of character.

One of G.K. Chesterton’s well-drawn characters is Hercule Flambeau, who is a master jewel thief and criminal. He’s usually able to outwit the police, but when he encounters Father Paul Brown in The Blue Cross, Flambeau finds he’s met his match. In that story, Father Brown is en route to a large gathering of priests. With him he’s brought a silver cross set with turquoise – a very attractive prize to a thief such as Flambeau. The story of how the two men interact and of how Father Brown deals with Flambeau is interesting and certainly from Flambeau’s perspective, unusual. We meet Flambeau in other stories too where he is at least the co-protagonist and although he has a criminal past, he’s painted quite sympathetically.

Agatha Christie takes an interesting look at the criminal-as-protagonist in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). Ten very different people receive invitations to stay as guests at a house on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts. On the night of their arrival, the guests are shocked when each is accused of being a criminal, specifically of causing the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. It’s soon clear that they are trapped on the island with a murderer. As more guests begin to die, the survivors have to find out who the killer is while at the same time staying alive themselves. As we learn the backstory of each person on the island, we also learn why their un-named host considers them criminals. But they’re not entirely unsympathetic people and we can feel for them as they try to decide who can be trusted and who not.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank is the story of a group of criminals led by professional thief Mike Daniels. The team decides to try for a very big prize: a theft from the City Savings Bank. Their bold plan is to use the sewer system to tunnel under the bank. For that though they’ll need the help of an architect. They find their man in the person of Stephen Booker, an unemployed architect who’s taken to driving a night cab to put food on the table. He’s desperate for money so against his better judgement he falls in with the thieves. The group makes elaborate preparations and as they do, Pollock shows the thieves in a sympathetic light. Here for instance is Daniels’ description of thieves:

 

‘Thieves. You might just as well say salesmen or clerks in an office. It’s their business. It’s what they do. There’s nothing strange about it, not to them anyway…They do what everybody does. They have girlfriends or wives and children and hobbies. They build shelves in the kitchen and clean their cars on Sundays.’
 

The day of the robbery arrives and at first everything goes well. Then a storm moves in, bringing a lot of rain with it. Now the thieves face a literal life-or-death struggle as they try to go for their prize.

In Tony Broadbent’s The Smoke, we meet Jethro, a professional cat burglar living in post-World War II London’s West End.  He tries to convince the world that he’s ‘gone straight,’ so he takes a job in the theatre district. His real goal though is easy access to the wealthy homes in nearby Mayfair and Belgravia. At first, he’s able to go fairly un-noticed even though most people in the criminal world are convinced that he has no intention of living an ‘upright’ life. Then Jethro decides on a real coup: emeralds belonging to the wife of the Russian Ambassador. That break-in gets the interest of MI5 and Jethro soon finds himself facing off against them, the police and fellow criminals. While it’s quite clear that Jethro’s a criminal, it’s easy to feel sympathy for him.

In Jeffrey Stone’s historical novel Play Him Again we are introduced to Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson. Hud has dreams of becoming a film-maker in the growing world of Hollywood. But at the moment he’s a ‘rum-runner’ – a smuggler of then-illegal alcohol (the novel takes place in the 1920’s). Hud is devastated when his friend Danny is murdered, Hud wants to find out who killed him and get revenge. There are plenty of suspects too. For one thing, a very nasty criminal gang has moved into the area and wants to take over Hud and Danny’s operation. There are rival smuggling groups too whose members would be all too happy to have the field cleared as the saying goes. As Hud searches for answers, it’s clear that he and several of the people he deals with are criminals – thieves, con men and smugglers. But Stone presents a lot of them sympathetically and it’s not hard to wish Hud well as he tries to find out what happened to his friend.

Even when criminals aren’t ‘official’ protagonists, they can play important roles in novels and be depicted sympathetically. For example, Andrea Camilleri’s series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano includes a very interesting ‘regular’ character Gegè Gullotta. He’s a drug dealer and local criminal leader who runs a notorious area of the town of Vigàta. This area, called The Pasture, is a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients and for small-time marijuana and other drug deals. Gullotta and Montalbano went to school together and they’ve maintained a cordial relationship since then, although both of them find it more expedient to keep their friendship discreet. Gullotta wants to run a trouble-free operation; as he sees it he’s a businessman, nothing more. In his way Montalbano helps Gullotta by not making public examples of the people involved in Gullotta’s ‘enterprises.’ Gullotta appreciates being able to run a peaceful trade and he does his part by not letting things in The Pasture get out of control or trouble people who don’t want to be involved in what goes on there. He’s also quite tuned in to the Vigàta criminal community so he hears a lot of what goes on. More than once Montalbano benefits from what Gullotta finds out.

It’s always interesting to see stories from different points of view. When criminals are portrayed as protagonists, it’s important for authors to acknowledge that they’re lawbreakers. But at the same time, a criminal with a sympathetic character can make for an effective perspective in a crime novel. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, G.K. Chesterton, Jeffrey Stone, Robert Pollock, Tony Broadbent

Money Makes the World Go Around*

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.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Emma Lathen, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Michael Connelly, Peter Temple, Robert Pollock