They may not get a lot of media hype and glory, but in real life, people who can follow money trails are responsible for catching a lot of criminals. It’s very hard to do any kind of business without leaving some sort of financial trail, however faint. People who can trace those financial transactions can often turn up useful evidence. Their results can bear on all sorts of crimes, from embezzling to drugs, to human trafficking, murder and other crimes, too.
They also play an important role in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples. It all certainly shows that money and banking experts aren’t just pencil-pushing nerds…
In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary Felicity Lemon asks him to consult with her sister Mrs. Hubbard. It seems that the student hostel that Mrs. Hubbard manages has been subject to some strange thefts and other odd goings-on, and she would like the matter resolved without bringing in the police. Poirot agrees and pays a visit to the hostel. During his visit, Celia Austin, who is one of the residents, admits to most of the thefts, and it’s believed the situation is over. But two nights later, Celia dies in what seems to be a successful suicide attempt. It’s soon shown to be murder, though, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who the killer is. As they look into the matter, they find that several hostel residents have been hiding some very dangerous secrets, and that Celia found out more than was safe for her to know. One of those secrets is found out through a careful following of a ‘money trail.’
Sloan Guaranty Trust Vice President John Putham Thatcher knows all about following the money, as the saying goes. The creation of the ‘Emma Lathen’ writing duo, he gets drawn into all sorts of crime as he and his team uncover banking irregularities. In Murder to Go, he uncovers the network of complicated financial transactions that take place when companies merge. In Going For the Gold, it’s counterfeiting that leads to theft and murder. Thatcher may not be the kind of sleuth who gets a lot of media attention, but his knowledge of banking, finance and ways to hide money give him an important edge in catching criminals.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman was an accountant before she followed her dream of becoming a baker. Although she’s no longer in the money business, she still has that knowledge, and she still knows people in accountancy, finance and banking. In Heavenly Pleasures, for instance, Chapman is concerned about a new resident in Insula, the Melbourne building where she lives and works. He’s quite enigmatic, and seems to have attracted some very unwanted attention. Chapman discovers that he is a former highly-placed accountant at a major firm. So when her friend Janet Warren comes to visit, Chapman wants her input. Warren is in the accounting business (that’s how she and Chapman became friends), and has some interesting ‘inside information.’ It turns out that Insula’s new resident may have been involved in, or at least know about, some very dubious high-level financial dealings. Without spoiling the story, I can say that following the money trail provides important information in this case.
Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that very often, finances are linked to the crimes he investigates. In About Face, for instance, Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of a truck driver, Stefano Ranzato, whose death may be linked to the illegal disposal of toxic waste. In the meantime, Brunetti’s father-in-law, Conte Orazio Falier, has asked him for some personal help. Falier is considering doing business with Maurizio Cataldo, and wants to know everything possible about Cataldo’s background and financial dealings. Brunetti agrees to find out what he can, and asks his boss’ assistant Signoria Elettra Zorzi to work her ‘computer magic’ and do a discreet background check. In this case (as in many in this series), it’s the quiet payments and ‘financial arrangements’ that tell more about the case than anything else.
Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is tracing money and recovering it for people who’ve been swindled. Her home is Toronto, but she works for Chow Tung, a Hong Kong-based former triad leader whom she calls ‘Uncle.’ Chow has set up a financial recovery business, and Lee is his protégée and ‘star employee.’ This company is a last resort for people who can’t find recourse anywhere else and are desperate to get their money back. In this series, we see how money can change hands many times, be stored in offshore bank accounts in places that don’t ask questions, and remain hidden from regular accounting checks. Lee is a master at making financial connections, and follows money trails wherever they lead. Her travels have taken her to Hong Kong, Bangkok, the Caribbean, and a lot of other places.
Following money trails is also a specialty for Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. In part because of her familiarity with banking, and in part because of her skill with computers, Salander is often able to track down financial information. And as those who’ve read the Millennium trilogy know, this also allows her to manipulate money as well.
Not all financial wizards are as well-traveled as Ava Lee, or as non-conformist as Lisbeth Salander. And they don’t all have ‘thriller like’ adventures. But it’s very often the work of people who understand money and finances that leads to catching some very big criminal fish.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Money.