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.


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

18 responses to “Money Makes the World Go Around*

  1. Margot, I am SO glad you mentioned the Emma Lathen novels – I have read (and own) many of them and have enjoyed them all. I think it’s disgraceful that they appear to be completely out of print, although I think there are copies of many of the books available through the usual second-hand bookstores. John Putnam Thatcher is a fine banker and a finer detective; I hope your readers can find some of those novels to enjoy themselves.

    • Les – I very much like the John Putnam Thatcher character too. And it is a shame that the series is hard to find unless you look for used copies; it is a well-written series. Now, I’ll admit that the novels are dated if you think purely about today’s technology for bank security, insider trading and that sort of thing. But the basic premise is so sound, and the plots ring true today. I do recommend this series folks.

  2. kathy d.

    I haven’t read any of the Thatcher books. However, it seems that from the first days of crime fiction writing, as pointed out about Holmes’ books, bank robbery has been a major plot device. And how many TV shows and movies are about complicated bank heists? Some very popular, classic movies feature on these activities.
    One more recent book comes to mind: Nemesis by Jo Nesbo. Although a bank robbery seems to be just that, it isn’t, not with Harry Hole involved.
    But today there is so much financial wheeling and dealing behind the scenes it would seem Wall Street is a perfect place for murder.

    • Kathy – I’m glad you mentioned Nemesis. I should have mentioned it as en example of the way banks are used in crime fiction, but I didn’t. Thanks for filling in that gap. You’re right that Wall Street wheeling and detaling is a very ripe premise for a good crime novel and there are several examples of stories like that. Peter Spiegelman writes Wall Street financial thrillers and so does James Grippando. There are others, too. In fact, at some point I may write a post about that. Thanks for the idea.

  3. Margot: I loved John Putnam Thatcher. He was one of the first sleuths I read who was capable but neither extraorinarily violent nor amazingly brilliant. I wanted him to be my banker.

    In the real world there is no point trying to rob a bank in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. When I tried to get more cash than my limit at the mini- bank (ATM) would allow I was surprised to find that tellers at all bank branches in Leknes had no cash. The only cash in each bank was in the mini- bank. Real life is changing a prolific source of stories for crime fiction.

    • Bill -That is an interesting story about banking at the Lofoten Islands. I suppose with so many electronic transactions, fewer people need cash, but still, it feels like the end of a very long era. Real life does indeed change all the time and that particular development definitely has implications for crime fiction.
      I’m glad you like the Emma Lathen mysteries. I like Thatcher’s sort of ‘everyman’ status myself. He’s skilled at banking (or he wouldn’t be a vice president) and he’s smart. But he doesn’t as you say have superpowers or the habit of shooting first and asking questions later. He’s an appealing guy.

  4. Hi Margot, I’ve missed you 🙂

    On the topic of finance (but not books) an ATM was dispensing double money yesterday. There was a photo in the news of the huge queue of people waiting to use it – because of course, the bank won’t be able to work out who has had too much money 😉

    • Sarah – Oh, what a delight to see you again!! Welcome back! I’ve missed you too 🙂 – I would have loved to be one of those people who got extra money from that ATM. I rarely have that kind of luck. I’ll bet that even today it’ll be the most popular machine in the area.

  5. I love the ‘Red-headed League’ story and could read it over and over again.
    Banker’s don’t do very well in Christie’s books – either they are murderers (one Two Buckle..) or victims (Harold in 4.50 from Paddington). Or a bit of both (The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim) A bit like dentists she obviously didn’t have much time for them.

    • Sarah – The Adventure of the Red-Headed League was the first Sherlock Holmes story I ever read, so I have a very special fondness for it. It’s a great little story. And you know, you’ve got a point about bankers. Christie really mustn’t have had much time for them (or for dentists). I wonder what sort of personal experiences may have led to that…

  6. I’m adding my voice to the fans of the Emma Lathen books. This was a great series – thanks for reminding me, Margot, I haven’t thought of them for ages. Got them piled up on my bookshelves, must get them out and reread.

  7. kathy d.

    I missed something by not reading the Emma Lathen books, must see what’s in the library. I can understand having no time for dentists or bankers.

    • Kathy – I do hope you get the chance to read some of the Emma Lathen novels. They really are very well done, and I think you’ll appreciate the fact that they are not gory.

  8. kathy d.

    This is such a fantastic song from Cabaret, and performed to perfection.
    This song led me to revisit the O’Jays For the Love of Money, and one of my favorites, The Rich Get Richer. Oh, what music! And oh, what messages! The best combination.

  9. Putting in my vote for the Emma Lathen series starring John Putnam Thatcher. I have read every one, and have re-read quite a few. I don’t find that they are any less entertaining the 2nd time around. It is just amazing that the authors could take a banking theme and move it to so many other settings and provide so much variety. I loved all the recurring characters. It is a shame they are not in print, but I have all my old copies.

    • Tracy – You know, you make a good point about the variety in location and story, considering all of the novels have a banking/finance theme. They all focus in some way on the Sloan, but each one tells a unique story. I don’t blame you for putting your vote in; it’s a terrific series.

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