Wills 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.