Got the Loan Shark Blues*

MoneylendersMoneylending in its different forms has been woven into many cultures for a very long time. Even with the evolution of modern banking systems, there’s a good market for the services of people who will lend money to those who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t use regular banks. Sometimes it works out well enough; a person gets a loan that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. The interest rate may be much higher, but the money goal is accomplished. Other times, it’s disastrous. After all, people who are desperate for money often don’t ask too many questions, and they’re not in a position to negotiate. So they can be easy prey for very unscrupulous lenders.

Plenty of governments make rules and policies about lending, but that doesn’t prevent predatory loans. Certainly that’s true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. There’s nothing like financial desperation to make fictional characters behave in all sorts of ways.

For example, in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Rachel Verinder is given a very valuable diamond, known as the Moonstone, for her eighteenth birthday. The gift comes from her uncle, and many say it’s more of a curse than a gift, since misfortune seems to befall anyone who has the stone. And there’s no doubt that trouble soon comes to the Verinder family. On the night Rachel receives the stone, it is stolen. A thorough search for the stone turns up nothing. Then, the family’s second housemaid, who has her own personal issues, dies, apparently a successful suicide. The stone itself is eventually traced to London, where it seems to have been pledged to a London moneylender. Sergeant Richard Cuff is put in charge of the investigation, and slowly, over the course of two years, he finds out the truth about who stole the diamond and where it is now.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Dr. James Sheppard of the small village of King’s Abbot gets involved in a murder mystery when his friend, Roger Ackroyd, is stabbed. The most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t think he is guilty. So she asks Hercule Poirot, who has taken the house next door to Sheppard’s, to investigate. As it turns out, several people in Ackroyd’s household have motives for murder, many of them financial. For instance, Ackroyd’s sister-in-law (and Flora’s mother), has been desperate for money. Here is how she explains it to Sheppard:

‘‘Those dreadful bills…And of course they mounted up, you know, and they kept coming in…And the tone altered – became quite abusive. I assure you, doctor, I was becoming a nervous wreck.’’

That worry has led Mrs. Ackroyd to do business with some ‘unconventional’ kinds of lenders, and she very much needs a share of Ackroyd’s fortune to make things right. You’re absolutely right, fans of Death in the Clouds.

One of the plot threads in Ian Rankin’s The Black Book concerns ‘Operation Moneybags.’ It’s to be a joint operation between the police and the Trading Standards people, designed to bring down an unscrupulous moneylender associated with crime boss Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. John Rebus is assigned to work on this case, and he’s none too happy about the way it’s shaping up. On the one hand, he’s only too happy to bring down this sort of predator:

‘People who wouldn’t stand a chance in any bank, and with nothing worth pawning, could still borrow money, no matter how bad a risk. The problem was, of course, that the interest ran into the hundreds percent and arrears could soon mount, bringing more prohibitive interest. It was the most vicious circle of all, vicious because at the end of it all lay intimidation, beatings and worse.’ 

On the other hand, Rebus knows that the operation won’t really get Cafferty, who is his nemesis and main target. It’ll be a matter of small-time arrests, political do-gooding and photo ops. But he gets involved, and soon finds that this operation leads to important information about another crime, a five-year-old fire that ended in murder.

Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty features Miami loan shark Chili Palmer. He’s the no-nonsense type who, at the beginning of the novel, goes to Ray Bones’ house and breaks his nose because Bones accidentally took Palmer’s jacket from a restaurant where they were both eating. Some years later, in a fluke, Palmer’s working for Bones. His newest assignment is to collect on a debt owed by Leo Devoe, who supposedly died in an airline crash. But it turns out that he’s not dead. Instead, he’s living in Las Vegas on the money his ‘widow’ collected from the airline. So Bones sends Palmer to force Devoe to pay up. Everything changes when Devoe goes to Hollywood. Palmer follows him there, and the original mission gets complicated by a movie pitch, agents, directors, and other Hollywood ‘types.’

In Sue Grafton’s V is For Vengeance, PI Kinsey Millhone is hired to do a background investigation on Audrey Vance, who has suddenly died after a shoplifting spree. The official report is that she committed suicide, but Marvin Striker, who was her fiancé, doesn’t think it’s all that simple. He believes in her innocence, and wants to know the truth about her death. Millhone doesn’t agree with her client; she thinks the victim was a professional thief who’d conned Striker. But she gets to work on the investigation. In one of the sub-plots of this novel, we meet Lorenzo Dante, a Las Vegas ‘private banker’ who’s been involved in various dubious lending arrangements most of his life, as that’s his family’s business. When he meets Nora, who’s unhappily married to a successful, ‘attorney to the stars,’ the two take to each other, which has all sorts of unforeseen consequences, and eventually ties Dante’s story to the story of Audrey Vance.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood, in which we meet London investigator Catherine Berlin. She’s been building up a case against a loan shark, Archie Doyle, and needs some extra ‘ammunition.’ For that, she relies on an informant who goes by the name of Juliet Bravo. When her informant is found dead in Limehouse Basin, Berlin feels a sense of responsibility for what happened. So she decides to ask some questions. But then, she’s suspended for not following protocol in that matter, and no longer has access to any official information. It seems there’s a deliberate attempt to keep the death quiet. To complicate matters, Berlin is a registered heroin addict whose official supplier, Dr. George Lazenby, has been murdered, and she finds herself a suspect. With only seven days’ supply of heroin left, Berlin knows she has very little time before withdrawal makes pursuing these cases impossible. As the story goes on, we get to know Archie Doyle, and we learn that he’s a complex character – much more than a cartoonish thug. He adds an interesting layer to the novel.

Moneylending is at times a very dangerous and illegal business. Some of the people in the business are predatory. And even an ethical moneylending business can be very expensive for those who use it. But it doesn’t stop people who are desperate for money.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rory Gallagher’s Loan Shark Blues.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Annie Hauxwell, Elmore Leonard, Ian Rankin, Sue Grafton, Wilkie Collins

26 responses to “Got the Loan Shark Blues*

  1. The murder of a moneylender – and the disappearance of his body – play major roles in one of Margery Allingham’s best novels, Tether’s End , also known as Hide My Eyes. It’s a suspense novel, rather than a whodunit, but it’s still full of surprises, even if we know the identity of the killer early on. But we don’t know about that disappearing moneylender – and how that was worked – until later in the book. I think it’s one of Allingham’s best, often compared (favorably by me, less so by others) with the earlier Tiger in the Smoke..

    • An excellent example, Les, for which thanks. It’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. And I always like it when Allingham’s work gets a plug.

  2. Intersting to see the quote from ‘The Black Book’. In the most recent Rebus, ‘Even Dogs in the Wild’, Rankin makes the point that part of the reason for the decline of the gangster in Scotland is the rise of ‘legitimate’ short-term lenders following changes to the law, advertising their exorbitant rates on TV, and preying on the same people as the gangsters used to.

    • Oh, that is really interesting, FictionFan. As if that one weren’t already on my TBR, it is now! I think it’s a well-taken point that those short-term lenders can be at least as predatory as the older-style gangster. They may not break bones (or worse) any more, but it’s just as miserable in its way for those most vulnerable.

  3. Kathy D.

    Interesting topic. Just read Denise Mina’s new book set around Glasgow, and one feature is about what terrible crimes are committed by criminals who loan money to regular/non-criminal individuals. It’s “Blood, Salt, Water,” and it studies a henchman, for one thing, as Mina says it, and shows his motivations, and creates some sympathy for him, amazingly enough.
    But she is such a skillful writer that she pulls it off.
    This is an intelligently written book, and although bleak, is so
    interesting, as opposed to so much that’s on the “best-seller lists” today.
    I just saw a list of the most-frequently-checked-out books from the NYC library system: In a word, “Yikes.”
    I want to encourage reading of global books, and of even less known but good U.S. novels, crime fiction and not.
    By the way, want to give a plug for Attica Locke’s new book, “Pleasantville,” a good legal mystery plus issues of political maneuvering and more set in a middle-class African-American community around Houston. Good writing, thoughtful.

    • Thanks for mentioning Blood, Salt, Water, Kathy. Mina really is a skilled writer, and I can see how she’d be able to portray the kind of henchman you mention successfully. I agree with you, too; the ‘best seller’ lists aren’t necessarily the best guides for what’s really worth reading.

  4. So glad you mentioned Annie Hauxwell, Margot. In Her Blood is a terrific novel about economic recession and loan sharing, as well as a great read.

  5. Margot: I happen to be reading March Violets by Philip Kerr. Early in the book as Bernie Gunther is searching for a valuable necklace he goes into a jeweler’s shop where there is a lineup of desperate Jewish people selling their jewels for a fraction of their value as they seek to raise money in the Nazi Germany of 1936.

    • Right you are, Bill. Thanks for reminding me of that. I hope you’ll enjoy that novel; I think the Bernie Gunther series is very well-written. And now you’ve reminded me of Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in Berlin just before the Nazis take complete power. There’s a scene in that one, too, that takes place in a jeweler’s shop. In a similar vein, there’s a discussion of raising money as quickly as possible.

  6. Col

    I did enjoy Get Shorty when I read it a few years ago. There’s a second book with Palmer – Be Cool, where he’s working the predatory waters of Hollywood, having left his loan-sharking behind him.

    • I’m glad you liked Get Shorty, Col. I’ve always thought Chili Palmer was an interesting character. And thanks for reminding me of Be Cool, too. Elmore Leonard did some really fine work, I think.

  7. Get Shorty immediately popped into my mind, but I see Col beat me to it. The movie adaptation was good too, but the book was way better, IMO, as is often the case.

    • I agree, Sue, about books being better than the film adaptation as a rule. And you and Col are both right about Get Shorty. I really like the depiction of Chili Palmer.

  8. I’ve been racking my brains to come up with the title, and author, of a book I read where the illegal money lender putting pressure on one family caused a whole domino effect of crimes and mishaps on an estate, but I simply can’t dredge the name up – another good subject Margot with some excellent examples

    • Thanks, Cleo. And now you’ve got me curious, too. Hmmm….if you come up with any other details about the book, do let me know. I’d love to know which book you had in mind.

  9. Financial predators lurk everywhere. Sometimes it’s those in desperate need who get caught in the trap, sometimes it’s those caught up in serious addictions, such as to gambling, sometimes it’s those who are greedy for sudden wealth, Loan sharks and folks touting their investment schemes are very much alike. We can find a lot of good stories in these unfortunate situations.

    • Oh, you’re absolutely right, Pat. They’re certainly out there, and they’re quick to take advantage, as you say, of desperate, or addicted, or greedy people. They choose those who are least in a position to really think clearly about the ‘opportunity.’

  10. Margot, hopefully, I will read “Moonstone” this year, and some of Elmore Leonard’s novels in my collection too. Illegal moneylending is a huge business in India, even in metro cities like Bombay where the urban educated often fall prey to easy money at high interest rates.

    • Thanks, Prashant, for your insights about what’s going on in India. I believe that whenever people think they can get money quickly and easily, they can fall prey to illegal moneylenders. That’s especially true, in my opinion, when people are desperate (because of their financial situation) or greedy. And you’re right; one might think that those who are educated would not fall prey so easily, but they do, too.

  11. Kathy D.

    Desperation sends people to borrow money. Often they can’t meet bank requirements so they turn to shady characters. This can lead to murder, as we crime fiction readers know.
    Another brutal scenario is when people owe money to drug dealers. This often ends up badly in fiction and in real life.

    • You’re absolutely right, Kathy. Desperation, either from financial or other situations (like addiction) can lead people to do whatever they need to do for money. And that can get them into terribly dangerous situations.

  12. In Christie’s Death in the Clouds the victim is a French moneylender, Madame Giselle, who has of course had plenty of opportunity to make enemies along the way.

  13. I have got to read Get Shorty one of these days. I loved the movie. We have watched it many time.s

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