Money, It’s a Crime*

Banking and MoneyThey 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Emma Lathen, Ian Hamilton, Kerry Greenwood, Stieg Larsson

20 responses to “Money, It’s a Crime*

  1. Great examples, Margot. Your topic also makes me think of bigger conspiracy stories like Bloodland by Alan Glynn and several seasons of The Wire.

    • Thanks, Rebecca. And you’re right of course; there are a lot of even larger financial conspiracies in fiction, and Bloodland is a good example of that (must do a spotlight on one of Glynn’s books some time!).

  2. Gordon Ferris’ latest book ‘Money Tree’ starts with an American journalist writing an article suggesting that the People’s Bank in India is ripping off some of the poorest people in society. Challenged by an executive in a top American bank, who claims that he has been fed false information, his investigation leads him to follow one of the loans made by the People’s Bank to the poverty-stricken village where the lender is using it to set up her own micro-business. Meantime his hacker friend is looking into the affairs of the big American bank. It’s an interesting look both at corruption within the financial sector and at how tiny amounts of money can make huge differences to people’s lives.

    • Oh, that sounds a great read, FictionFan! I find microloans and microbusinesses really fascinating. And this really does sound like an interesting look at an important aspect of life in India – to say nothing of international banking. I must read this, I think.

  3. Kathy D.

    Oh, my, more books to add to the list that shall not be named. Certainly, the Ian Hamilton and new Gordon Ferris. Financial crimes are interesting. Now, can anyone investigate the shenanigans and maneuvering on Wall Street at banks and hedge funds?

    • Oh, I wish someone would, Kathy! I know there are mysteries with that sort of character in them. Maybe I’ll do a ‘Wall Street’ post at some point…
      As to the Hamilton, I do recommend the series. The new Ferris I’ll confess I’ve not (yet) read, but I do like his writing.

  4. The do that a LOT in the television crime shows — following money trails! It’s rather interesting to see them [the cops] put the pieces of the financial puzzle together and find subsequently find the villain! 🙂

  5. Margot: Garrett Riley, in The Ascendant by Drew Chapman, uses his photographic memory and talent at seeing patterns to detect a Chinese economic attack on America in the sale of $200,000,000,000.00 of U.S. Treasury Bonds. It is a very good book.

    While I have not been as excited about the last two Ava Lee books I admire an author who can credibly take his sleuth to the Faroe Islands following the money.

    • Bill – Oh, yes! I remember your terrific review of The Ascendant. I remember thinking at the time that I needed to put that on my TBR list. Thanks for reminding me of it; it does sound terrific.
      I think Hamilton is good at creating credible situations; and as you say, that’s not easy. It’s especially the case with thrillers, where the temptation is to ask the reader to suspend an awful lot of disbelief.

  6. Col

    Quite a topical post, considering the FIFA arrests and the FBI investigation. Tell me you’re a soccer fan!

    • Yes, the FIFA thing’s been horrible. And the FBI investigation too, of course. It all shows the kind of ‘money crimes’ that happen in real life. And as for football? I like the World Cup games, but I can’t say I’m a huge fan of one club or another.

  7. Patti Abbott

    When I think of mysteries about money, I think of Emma Lathen. Her banker served as a detective too.

  8. In Dorothy L Sayers’ books, Lord Peter has a friend he always consults whenever financial issues crop up in a case: Hon Freddy Arbuthnot. He’s shown as a bit of fool about everything else, but very sharp and knowledgeable about high finance. Just the right friend for a private investigator!

    • Absolutely, Moira! And I’m glad you mentioned Freddy. He’s a good friend for Wimsey even if he’s not the sharpest knie in the drawer about some things. Glad you filled in that gap.

  9. Love mysteries that follow the money!

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