When He Died, I Inherited His Wealth*

Unusual WillsWills can be funny things. They aren’t always as straightforward as they may seem, no matter how clearly the terms in them may be laid out. And sometimes, they include very strange provisions. Because wills sometimes involve a lot of money, they can be high-stakes, too. It’s only natural, when you think about it, that we’d hear a lot about wills in crime fiction. And sometimes, they involve some unusual situations. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.

In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Colonel John Herncastle bequeaths a large yellow diamond called the Moonstone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. On the surface, you might think this a very generous gift, and as far as monetary value goes, it is. However, things aren’t exactly what they seem. Herncastle stole the Moonstone from a palace in India, and the story goes that anyone who removes the diamond from its rightful place is cursed. So one possibility is that Herncastle’s bequest is actually a curse on the Verinder family. That’s not so outrageous, considering the bad relations between Herncastle and his sister, Lady Julia Verinder. Certainly trouble comes to the Verinder family after the Moonstone is given to Rachel. For one thing, there are groups of people in India who want the stone back and will do anything to get it. Then, on the night Rachel gets the stone, it’s stolen from her room.  Later, the second housemaid (who has troubles of her own) commits suicide. As it turns out, this bequest causes a great deal of trouble, even for those who don’t believe in the curse.

Agatha Christie referred to wills an awful lot in her work. For example, in the short story Manx Gold, Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker learn that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has passed away, and they travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of his will. According to the will, there is buried treasure on the island, and Uncle Myles has arranged a sort of game to determine who will inherit it. Fenella and Juan are hoping they’ll win; they’re a young, engaged couple who could use the money to start their lives. But they are not the only contestants. There are other would-be heirs who want the treasure just as badly. One morning, each contestant is given the first clue and the race is on. When murder strikes, it’s clear that, for at least one person, this is not a game. I see you, fans of After the Funeral and of The Case of the Missing Will. And of Sad Cypress. See what I mean?

Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club also involves an interesting sort of a will.  In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates two deaths. One is the death of General Fentiman, a fellow member of his club. The other is the death of Fentiman’s wealthy sister Lady Dormer. According to Lady Dormer’s will, if she dies before her brother does, her fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If her brother predeceases her, then the fortune goes to her distant cousin Ann Dorland. So in this case, the timing of the two deaths is of great importance. When it’s discovered that General Fentiman was poisoned, it’s clear that someone has a very personal stake in which sibling dies first.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth also features an odd sort of a will. Queen and his friend Beau Rummell have recently opened up a PI agency. One of their first clients is wealthy and eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and has had little contact with anyone in his family. Now he wants to trace any living relatives and make arrangements for the disposition of his fortune. Queen and Rummell take the case, and soon track down two potential heirs. One is aspiring actor Kerrie Shawn, who’s scraping by getting whatever bit parts and ‘extra’ roles she can. Getting a start in Hollywood is proving difficult for her. The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s mostly lived in Paris. When word comes that Cadmus Cole has died, his will is made public. His two heirs will divide his fortune under the condition that they share his home on the Hudson for a year. Kerrie and Margo both agree to the terms, and duly arrive at the house. Not long afterwards, Margo is shot, and Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Rummell is infatuated with her, and wants to clear her name. And, as it turns out, there are other possible explanations for Margo’s murder…

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces readers to the Lawson family. Carey Lawson is both wealthy and beloved in her village of Forbes Abbot. When she dies, her will stipulates that her home and fortune are to pass to her nephew Mallory Lawson and his wife, Kate. A generous share of the money is also to go to Mallory and Kate’s daughter Polly when she turns twenty-one. There is also a stipulation in the will that requires the Lawsons to provide a permanent home on the property to Benny Frayle, who was Carey Lawson’s companion. The Lawsons are only too willing to do that, since they like Benny. Besides, this inheritance is a dream come true to them, as they’ve wanted startup money to launch their own publishing company. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Carey Lawson’s death is not suspicious. But before long, it’s clear that something untoward is going on. The Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Benny, who was a friend to Brinkley, is sure that he was murdered. She tries to get DCI Tom Barnaby to investigate, but he sees no reason to question the original findings. The police who investigated did their jobs professionally. When there’s another death, though, things change. Now Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look more deeply into the goings-on in Forbes Abbot, and find more than they bargained for, as the saying goes.

Sometimes, even wills that seem to be quite clear aren’t. For instance, in R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we meet Meg Harris. She’s recovering from a disastrous marriage, and has moved away from Toronto to Three Deer Point, the home she inherited from her Aunt Agatha. This house is located in rural Western Québec. At first, the change is welcome, as Meg starts to put her life back together. But then, a large company, CanacGold, learns that there may be gold on Whisper Island, which lies near Three Deer Point. The company wants to mine the island and if there is gold, to lay claim to it. This has divided the local Miskigan community, with some wanting that development, and others opposing it. MIskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik knows that Meg doesn’t want the company mining the island. So he is hoping she’ll agree to help resolve the issue. If Whisper Island is actually part of Three Deer Point, then it belongs to Meg, and she has the right to keep the company off the island. If not, then it’s likely the company could come in. So one plot thread of this novel concerns the effort to try to find out exactly what Meg has inherited. The other concerns a case of murder that turns out to be linked to the dispute over Whisper Island, and to her own past.

Of course, not all wills are that difficult to sort out, or that dangerous. But they are interesting. And they’re woven throughout the genre.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Wesley Harding’s Miss Fortune.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, R.J. Harlick, Wilkie Collins

33 responses to “When He Died, I Inherited His Wealth*

  1. Wills seem to feature much more frequently in older crime fiction, I wonder if this is because all the rich people have been warned by crime writers to keep the contents of their wills a secret if they want to stay alive?

  2. There’s a most peculiar will driving the action in Rex Stout’s Where There’s a Will, Margot: a murdered multimillionaire has made a will leaving his three sisters, April, May and June, a peach, a pear and an apple. The bulk of his substantial fortune is left to a woman who is most definitely not his wife. As you can imagine, this leads to certain, er, complications, including more murder, and a need for the services of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

    • Oh, that’s a fabulous example, Les. As ever, trust you to come up with exactly the right instance from classic/GA crime fiction. What I like about this one, among other things, is the sly wit that Stout uses to tell the story.

  3. I love a will in a murder story – I cheer up when there’s one in the offing, you know it’s going to add to the complications. In Sayers’ Unnatural Death it’s not the will that is vital, but the intestacy laws. And in her Strong Poison it’s vital to get a look at an old lady’s will…

    • You’re quite right about Strong Poison of course, Moira. That will figures strongly in the story. You make a well-taken point, too, about how wills can add to the suspense of a story. As you say, you know there’s dirty business afoot just as soon as a will starts being discussed…

  4. Margot: It is too bad you do not live a little closer to Melfort so you could attend the public lecture on wills and estates I am giving at the library on Tuesday evening.

    One of my stories about what not to do with wills. I discourage bequests that try to be clever or funny. In 1926 a Canadian lawyer, Charles Vance Millar, died leaving the residue of his estate, several hundred thousand dollars, to the woman who had the most children in Toronto in the next 10 years. It is actually sad rather than funny as women tried to have the most children. There will be no surprise that litigation took place after the 10 years. Readers can find details if they search for the Great Stork Derby online.

    • It is a shame I don’t live closer, Bill. Your lecture sounds both interesting and informative. I’m sure it’ll go well. Thanks for mentioning the Great Stork Derby. I’ve heard of it before, but hadn’t remembered it until your reminder. That’s definitely not the sf will that one would want to encourage, and I’m sure it left a lot of unhappiness and even real sorrow.

  5. Col

    I think it’s definitely more of a feature in older books, I can’t recall it in my own recent reading.

  6. Wills can add so much to a story. I agree with others, you don’t read about wills as much in books being published now. Wills where pets are involved are always intriguing.

    • You know, Mason, I hadn’t thought of that! Thank you. You’re right about wills where pets are involved; that brings in a whole new dimension, doesn’t it? And I think you’ve a well-taken point that you don’t see wills in modern crime fiction as you do in more classic crime fiction. And yet, of course, people still make wills. It’s an interesting change in the genre.

  7. Your comment section is almost as good as your posts. Mason’s comment about pets is an intriguing idea. Isn’t it? Don’t think I’ve ever read about someone leaving their estate to their pet.

    • I haven’t read about it in crime fiction, either, Sue, ‘though I know it’s happened in real life. And I’m glad you enjoy the comments section of my posts. I learn far, far more from my readers than anyone ever learns from me.

  8. Margot, Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” has been on my wishlist for a very long time. I’m going to take your entry as a gentle reminder — thanks!

  9. Kathy D.

    Lots of Hercule Poirot plots which revolve around wills: Who is the real heir? Who is the secret heir who suddenly appears? Who is really the unknown biological child of the deceased who can claim the riches? A lot of intrigues in this plot. Old photos, old letters, lots of interesting clues.

    • You’re quite right, Kathy. Christie deals with will a lot in her stories. Who benefits? Who’s the real heir? What, exactly, gets inherited? All of those things add to the intrigue in those stories.

  10. Believe it or not a Will features in one of my short stories. I never gave a thought as to whether or not they featured as causes for murder in recent times. I guess these days people go to court and sue if they think they’ve been left out or passed over for an inheritance. I like to think there are still those out there who would stop at nothing…So interesting everyone.

    • I think it’s interesting, too, Jane, and I love learning from all the great comments (including yours!). One does tend to think of wills as something from the past, but they aren’t really. People still want to inherit, and there are still some people wealthy enough to bequeath quite a lot. And there are still unusual wills…

      • Indeed, and as I am always being threatened with being left out of ‘she who must be obeyed’s’ Will for whatever misdemeanor, I have had cause to ponder such documents – I couldn’t care less actually. But my story is about a strange and chilling bequest to a group of individuals, granted only upon the execution of certain ‘requests.’ Unusual, yes indeed. lol

  11. Until it was mentioned here, I never realized that wills feature more in older mystery novels. I think that is true. I am glad Les mentioned my favorite book featuring a will. Where There’s a Will by Rex Stout.

    • That’s a good one, isn’t it, Tracy? I’m glad that Les mentioned it, too. And I really do suspect that wills feature more often in older novels than they do now. It’s an interesting difference between older crime fiction and modern crime fiction.

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