Tell Me That You Want the Kind of Things That Money Just Can’t Buy*

MoneyandWealthIf 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. 😉


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Ross Macdonald, Vicki Delany

22 responses to “Tell Me That You Want the Kind of Things That Money Just Can’t Buy*

  1. Hmpf. Latest estimate on the Powerball for Saturday is $550 million. As you indicated (I think) in the crime literature about money, there IS such a thing as having too much. On the other hand, I figure that by not buying a ticket, I’m not really reducing my chances of winning all THAT much… 😉

    • Les – LOL! You do have a point that there’s little chance of actually winning the Powerball lottery. It’s fun to dream, though… And you’re right that there is such a thing as too much money.

  2. Great theme to pick on Margot – I am always incredibly disappointed that my dreams of avarice only ever seem to get as far as paying off my mortgage and those of the rest of my family and then giving the rest to charity. I think I must really lack ambition! Let’s face it, I wouldn’t be the murderer – I’d be the victim!

    • Sergio – Thank you – I wouldn’t say that was a cause for disappointment. I think it’s wonderful that you are so caring of others. Not only do I think that’s admirable, but it’d probably make you far less likely to be the target of others’ greed. And that can only be a good thing.

      • Which is very nice fo you to say – and yet, deep down, I;d like to think that if I had a million bucks you could actually figure out how to spend it in a meaningful way! Curing a horrible disease would be good, right?

  3. Hakan Nesser’s ‘The Unlucky Lottery’s springs to mind. The money didn’t do anyone any good. I used to do the lottery years ago now but gave up…

    • Sarah – Oh, now that’s a good example! You’re right indeed. Leverkuhn and his friends are all excited to be wealthy and yet as you say, it did them no good at all. I have to say I’m not much of a lottery player myself. As you can see from the ‘photo I do play once in a great while when the winnings are really tempting. But usually I don’t.

  4. I always like Christie’s After the Funeral (is it called Funerals are Fatal in the US?) because (careful here) of the motive: I have seen references to its being silly or inadequate – an accusation I’m quite happy to bandy about re other books. But I find this one convincingly chilling – what the murderer wants isn’t huge but it would be life-changing, and it becomes an obsession. Cleverly done, and there is an excellent TV adaptation with a great performance – I feel the actor doesn’t get enough credit, because one can’t describe the performance without giving away key points. This must sound confusing and unclear to anyone who hasn’t read/seen it – so they should go and read(watch) it!

    • Moira – Oh, right you are about After the Funeral (And yes, it was released as Funerals are Fatal in the US). There’s a case where the murderer takes ‘If only…’ frighteningly far. And I agree about the TV version of this one; it was very well done. There were some places where it deviated from the book in ways I didn’t care for, but that particular actor? Outstanding.

  5. Money–having it or wanting it–causes a lot of problems in the world of crime fiction! And too right that it can’t buy us happiness…or even safety.

    • Elizabeth – I like the way you put that – ‘happiness…or even safety.’ I think most of us would say we’d want money, but once the basic needs are met, a lot of it can cause more harm than good.

  6. I always felt Linnet Doyle deserved what she got and found myself rooting for the murderers. Does that make me a bad person? 😉

    • FictionFan – No, it doesn’t make you a bad person at all. Unless I’m one too, and I refuse to believe that… Linnet behaves unconscionably and although like Hercule Poirot I don’t condone murder, one can certainly sympathise in this case. To me that’s part of Christie’s gift – to invite the reader to see things not just in ‘black and white’ (i.e. ‘This person is a bad, horrible person because s/he murdered’) but in ‘shades of grey.’

  7. kathy d.

    Listening to a young friend who has a Master’s degree in Physics and can’t find a job and knowing how much he needs to find one after all of his hard work, I sympathize with anyone who needs money to start off his adult life. So to have a basic income to have a residence and everything else needed is crucial.
    Then after one has enough to live on, then donate to charitable organizations, I say. How much money does a person (or family) need?
    Let’s say one wins the lottery! Keep a few million, help out needy relatives and friends — and then donate for housing, food, health care, the environment. Food banks needs funds; donations are down since the Recession started. Medical clinics need funds. People around the world need antibiotics and so much more.
    Anybody who has lots of money and doesn’t use it to help others has no respect from me — and I can understand — in fiction — they reap what they sow, so to speak.

    • Kathy – You make a strong case for giving back once one has a lot of money. As you say, one reaps what one sows, and that includes both those who work to ‘give back’ and those who don’t. And you’re right; how much money do we really need? Of course it’s fun to have money and it’s fun to fantasise about what one would do with a lot of it. But in real life? Hey, how many cars can someone drive at once anyway?

  8. I don’t need a lot of money but I would wish for enough to retire without worries (related to money), which would include paying off the mortgage and having enough for health care, in a city which has a high cost of living. One can dream.

    As far as mysteries… I always come back to Nero Wolfe, often his clients were wealthy, as he demanded very high pay for his services and needed lots of money to run his household.

    Also, in The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird, it is about a formerly wealthy family who can no longer afford to maintain their estate.

    • Tracy – I’d like to have a life with no money concerns too after I retire. We shall see how the real world actually ends up treating me as far as that goes. It’s getting harder and harder to plan that kind of retirement…
      You’re right too about Nero Wolfe. He has lots of really wealthy clients who nonetheless are neither happy nor safe for all of their money. And it’s funny how Wolfe’s tastes more than anything else drive up the cost of maintaining his business. And yet, he doesn’t think about that when he starts off by refusing cases.
      Thanks too for the suggestion of the Aird. It sounds like an interesting read.

  9. col

    It would be nice to win some money to be able to remove some of the everyday pressures of life, mortgage, bills, retirement (some day). I’d also like to be able to give my children a leg-up for their future. I wouldn’t aspire to being the richest person in the graveyard though.
    I might treat myself to a Ross MacDonald book though – never read him!

    • Col – Good point about the graveyard! And yes, it would be terrific to have enough money to take away the daily concerns like paying the bills and so on. But there is definitely such a thing as too much. Past a certain point money can stop bringing a sense of security and start being a cause for even more stress.

  10. Hi Margot. I second Elizabeth’s comment that money – and especially not having it and wanting it – causes much mischief in crime fiction … but also such fertile territory for the novelist!

    The author I always think of in this context is Raymond Chandler, whose well-heeled clients are usually not only corrupt but also unhappy. It can’t buy happiness, as they say … I find this aspect of his stories, along with Marlowe’s compassionate nature, to imply a leftist bent in Chandler’s thinking though as I understand he was politically a conservative.

    • Bryan – Interesting point about Chandler’s political leanings. You make a solid argument that his stories have a hint of the left, or at least of social liberalism. It’s an interesting contrast to his real-life views. That in itself is worth a paper, I think…
      And you’re quite right about issues around money. In real life those issues can drive people to do things that they would never consider doing. And in crime fiction, as you say, such fertile ground for a good plot.

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