Moneylending 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.