Insurance companies are very much like other businesses in one sense: they want to make money. And they don’t earn money by paying out claims. So most insurance companies want to make very sure that any claim against them is legitimate. The stakes can be very high, too, since some insurance policies include high payouts. So it shouldn’t be surprising that insurance companies and insurance investigators play a role in crime fiction. My guess is that you can already think of several examples of insurance carriers and investigators in crime fiction; here are a few that have occurred to me.
There’s an early example of a murder mystery involving insurance investigation in ‘Charles Felix’s’ The Notting Hill Mystery. Through a series of letters, testimonials and other documents, we learn that Ralph Henderson is an insurance investigator. He’s been assigned to look into the death of Madame R**, who died after drinking a bottle of acid during an episode of sleepwalking. Henderson begins to get some information on the case, and discovers that the victim’s husband Baron R** had taken out several life insurance policies on his wife. That immediately raises Henderson’s suspicions, but he can’t get any evidence of how the murder was committed. Still, it’s clear from early in the novel that the baron is guilty of the crime. Henderson’s even surer of that when he turns up evidence of three other murders. In this story, the ‘howdunit’ is more the focus than the ‘whodunit.’
In Agatha Christie’s short story The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, the Northern Union Insurance Company carries the policy on the life of Mr. Maltravers. When he dies, company representative Alfred Wright asks his friend Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. A great deal of course is riding on whether Maltravers died of sudden illness, was murdered, or committed suicide. So Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Marsdon Manor, where Mr. Maltravers lived with his wife, to find out exactly what caused the victim’s death. Poirot deduces the truth about Maltravers’ death, but at first he doesn’t have any proof. Then he works out a very unusual and ingenious way to get the proof that he needs.
One of the more famous stories featuring insurance companies is James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. In that novel, we meet Walter Huff, an insurance agent for General Fidelity of California. That company underwrites the automobile policy on a car owned by a certain Mr. Nirdlinger. When Huff visits Nirdlinger’s house to talk to him about renewing his policy, he meets Nirdlinger’s wife Phyllis. It’s not long before she begins flirting with him and he finds himself attracted to her too. Still, he has no illusions about her. She wants to take out a double-indemnity accident policy on her husband’s life and then arrange an ‘accident’ for him so that she can collect the insurance money. Huff’s been wanting to find a quick way to ‘beat the system’ himself, so he falls in with her plans, and the two work out a plan for insurance fraud. At first it seems that the plan will work well. But then, something goes wrong and before long, things quickly spiral out of control…
There are of course plenty of other novels and stories that feature plots involving insurance investigators and insurance money. There are also several sleuths who are or have been insurance investigators. One of them is Peter Corris’ Sydney-based PI Cliff Hardy. As we learn in The Dying Trade, Hardy once worked for an insurance company:
‘… – long hours, high mileage and pathetic incendiarists. The work had coated my fingers with nicotine, scuttled my marriage and put fat around my waistline and wits. The deals and hush-money made divorce work seem clean as riding a wave and bodyguarding noble and manly.’
Corris has long since parted company with his insurance employer. But he still occasionally uses his company business card when he thinks it’ll give him access to people who’d be reluctant to talk to a private investigator. He’s kept his share of contacts too, from those days, and taps them as a resource when necessary.
In many novels of Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series,’ her PI sleuth Kinsey Millhone does occasional insurance investigation work for California Fidelity Insurance. The arrangement is that the company allows Millhone office space on their premises so that she can meet her private clients and carry on her business. In return, Millhone looks into cases of possible arson, wrongful death and other cases where the company may have to pay a big claim. That relationship isn’t always a smooth one (saying more would give away a story arc that I don’t want to spoil). But several of Millhone’s California Fidelity cases come up as sub-plots in this series. And even though she’s not an ‘official’ full-time employee, we get to see how insurance companies went about investigating claims before there was the Internet and the ‘smart ‘phone.’
And then there’s Susan Slater’s Rollover. That’s the story of a bank robbery, a valuable haul, and insurance investigator Dan Mahoney. Mahoney works for United Life and Casualty, the company that insured a Tiffany necklace stolen from one of the safety deposit boxes at the First Community Bank of Wagon Mound (New Mexico). Needless to say, the robbers do not want Mahoney to catch them or to find the necklace… I’ll admit I’ve not (yet) read this one. But it was the review of this at Kittling: Books that got me thinking about insurance companies and insurance investigators. So…. thanks to Cathy at Kittling: Books for the inspiration. While you’re checking out her post, do look around the site. Among other things, you’ll find terrific reviews of all sorts of crime fiction.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to pay on my policies…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from J.J. Cale’s Take Out Some Insurance.