One of the classic story lines in fiction is the rags-to-riches plot. Someone who’s been very poor, but who works hard, etc., finally comes into money. It’s not surprising this is such a popular sort of story, really. For one thing, plenty of readers can identify with the plot, since lots of readers would love to have wealth. For another, there’s the sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing a deserving character ‘make good.’ And rags-to-riches plots have also been used to teach young people lessons about working hard (e.g. the old Horatio Alger stories), and about holding up under adversity (e.g. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess).
Rags-to-riches plot lines are also woven into crime fiction. There are a lot of them, so space only permits a few. But it’s interesting to see how some different authors in the genre have played with this concept.
One of the plot lines in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House has a bit of the rags-to-riches theme in it. Esther Summerson is an orphan who’s been raised by an unpleasant and angry woman she refers to as her godmother. Wealthy philanthropist John Jarndyce takes an interest in her welfare, since she is distantly connected to a long-standing legal dispute that involved his family. When Esther’s godmother dies, Jarndyce takes over her guardianship, sees that she’s sent to school, and then takes her into his home as his ward. She becomes companion to wealthy Ada Clare, whose future Jarndyce is also helping to plan. Esther’s life is by no means idyllic after Jarndyce takes her in, but she’s off the streets, so to speak, and in a very good home. As fans will know, Dickens wrote several novels that have the rags-to-riches plot line. But this one, with a murder, a disputed will, and a proto-detective, seems (at least to me) to fit most closely into the category of early detective fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. For ten years, she’s served as companion to a woman named Mrs. Harfield. Katherine’s never had money, but all of that changes when Mrs. Harfield dies and leaves all of her considerable fortune to her companion. Now that she’s suddenly come into money, Katherine decides to travel. So she gets a new wardrobe, and makes plans to accept an invitation to visit a distant cousin, Lady Rosalie Tamplin, who lives in Nice. Katherine’s under no illusions about why she got that invitation: Lady Rosalie wants to ingratiate herself with her newly-wealthy relative. But she decides to go, and takes the famous Blue Train. While on board, she meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s got her own family drama. As it turns out, Katherine’s very likely the last person to speak to Ruth at any length before Ruth is murdered late one night. So she gets drawn into the murder investigation. Hercule Poirot is also on board the train, and works with the police to find out who murdered the victim and why.
Jaqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs is the first in her historical series about former WWI nurse Maisie Dobbs. As we learn in that novel, Maisie is the daughter of hard-working, but poor, parents. At a young age, she goes into domestic service for the wealthy Compton family. Maisie is quick-thinking and intelligent, and Lady Rowan notices that. So she takes an interest in the girl, and sponsors her. One of Lady Rowan’s friends is Maurice Blanche, who also sees how intelligent Maisie is, and becomes her mentor. Between the two of them, Maisie is well-supported. After she returns from service as a nurse in the Great War, Maisie sets up shop as a private investigator/psychologist. She doesn’t move among the very highest social circles herself, but several of her clients do, and it’s interesting to see how she remains quite practical, despite moving from the scullery to the drawing room, as you might say.
In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, Lilian Jackson Braun introduces readers to her sleuth, newspaper journalist James ‘Qwill, Qwilleran. He’s trying to get his life back together after a terrible divorce and too much time at the bottom of the bottle. In the first few novels, his old friend Arch Riker, who’s a newspaper editor, hires Qwill to give him some support. But Qwill is still living very close to the bone. Then, the unexpected happens. Qwill inherits a vast fortune from his mother’s best friend Fanny Klingenschoen. The will specifies that Qwill must live in the small town of Pickax, ‘400 miles north of nowhere,’ so he makes the journey. Qwill has no real interest in extreme wealth, so he creates the Klingenschoen Foundation, which underwrites worthy projects and companies. Once the citizens of Pickax see that Qwill is giving back to their community, they’re grateful, and accept him as one of them.
And then there’s David Housewright’s Rushmore McKenzie, former Minneapolis police detective turned occasional private investigator. In A Hard Ticket Home, we learn that McKenzie was living as most police do: not desperately poor, but certainly with little to spare. Then, as a result of a case he was working on, he came into quite a large fortune. I don’t want to spoil the story of how that happened for those who haven’t read it. Now, McKenzie is a millionaire, with a beautiful home in St. Paul. He’s remained more or less practical, but he won’t deny he enjoys being able to get what he wants, when he wants.
Rags-to-riches crime-fictional stories can take all kinds of forms. Some end very well, but some most definitely don’t (it is crime fiction, after all). These are just a few. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charmin’s I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here.