Applause, Applause For Bald Face White Collar Crime*

The thing about ‘easy money’ is that it almost never is. And most people know that. But that doesn’t stop people padding their accounts – or trying to do so. And that’s often when trouble starts. For one thing, it’s illegal to embezzle or otherwise take other people’s money.  That means the police tend to take an interest in such matters. For another, those who’ve been cheated don’t tend to take kindly to it. And that can lead to consequences, too. Still, there are plenty of people who think they can get away with that sort of crime, whether it’s ‘to rob Peter to pay Paul,’ or ‘just until things get better,’ or ‘just this once.’

It certainly happens enough in real life, and it happens in crime fiction, too. And it doesn’t tend to work out well for those who take that risk. For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body?,  an architect named Alfred Thipps is shocked one day when he discovers the body of a dead man in his bathtub. The police begin to investigate; and, of course, Thipps himself is very much a ‘person of interest.’ He claims to be innocent, though, and his employer, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, believes him. She asks her son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to look into the matter. Wimsey finds that another odd event has occurred: the disappearance of financier Rueben Levy. And it’s discovered that Levy was engaged in some questionable oil shares transactions. It turns out that the body in Thipps’ bathtub is not Levy’s, but the two incidents are related, as are those shady trading deals.

In Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, New York schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers takes her class on a field trip to the New York Aquarium. Just as the group is about to leave the aquarium, one of Miss Withers’ students notices the body of a dead man sliding into the penguin pool. Inspector Oscar Piper is called to the scene, and begins the investigation. The victim is soon identified as stockbroker Gerald Lester, and it’s not long before Piper and Miss Withers uncover a number of possible motives and suspects. For one thing, Lester’s wife, Gwen, has been having an affair with his attorney, Philip Seymour, and both of them were at the aquarium at the time of the murder. For another, the story takes place just after the Great Crash of 1929 that was immediately followed by the worldwide Great Depression. Many of Lester’s clients lost everything, and more than one of them could easily have wanted revenge. There are other possibilities, too. Each in a different way, Piper and Miss Withers look into the case, and find out that Lester’s ‘unconventional’ ways of doing business played a role in his murder.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood tells the story of the Cloade family. Wealthy Gordon Cloade, the family patriarch, had always told his siblings and their families that they wouldn’t have to worry about money. And they’ve always depended on him to help provide for their needs. Then, to everyone’s shock, Cloade married a widow named Rosaleen Underhay. Before he had time to alter his will, though, he was killed in a World War II bomb blast. Now, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything, and the rest of the Cloades will get nothing. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay, may still be alive. If so, this means that Rosaleen won’t be able to inherit anything. So, all of the Cloades have a stake in Arden’s visit, and are all involved on at least some level when he is killed one night. Hercule Poirot has already met two of the Cloades, so he takes an interest in the case. One of the people he gets to know is the victim’s brother, Jeremy. And it turns out that Jeremy Cloade has been using clients’ funds inappropriately. That misappropriation of money gives him a very high stake in the outcome of this mystery…

Emma Lathen’s John Putnam Thatcher is an executive with the Sloan Guaranty Trust bank. So, he’s seen his share of attempts to embezzle or otherwise get the use of people’s money. For instance, in Going For the Gold, the bank has gotten the exclusive contract for providing banking services for the (1980) Lake Placid Winter Olympics. So, Thatcher goes to Lake Placid to see that all of the bank’s operations are going smoothly. When Yves Bisson, a French ski jumper, is murdered, everyone thinks at first that it’s a terrorist attack. Soon enough, though, Thatcher is distracted by reports that the bank has been targeted in a counterfeiting scheme. It turns out that Bisson’s death, and other incidents that happen, are related to this scheme, and to someone’s need to cover up theft with counterfeiting and murder.

And then there’s Emmet Sweetman, whom we meet in one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. He’s a crooked banker who’s been involved in more than one dubious transaction. During the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was enough money coming in that Sweetman could use depositors’ money and other funds, and not get caught. There was always going to be income to cover up what he did. But then, the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years ended, and Sweetman ended up owing a lot of money to some very dangerous people. And one night, two of them shoot him in his own home. Dublin DS Bob Tidey investigates the murder, together with Garda Rose Cheney.

If there’s anything this and other crime novels tell us, it’s that it’s never a good idea to use other people’s money without their approval. In some way or another, it always seems to come back to haunt. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Robben Ford’s Lateral Climb.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Emma Lathen, Gene Kerrigan, Stuart Palmer

8 responses to “Applause, Applause For Bald Face White Collar Crime*

  1. ‘Easy money’ does have strings that can lead to dangerous events. In some of the stories I’ve read, you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the criminals toward the end, especially the ones that know their greed is about to do them in. As always, Margot, a post that makes you ponder. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason; glad you enjoyed the post. You make an interesting point, too, about people and their greed. On the one hand, it’s easy to have contempt for them. Everyone knows there’s no such thing, really, as a proverbial free lunch. As you say, there are always strings attached. On the other hand, which of us wouldn’t want some extra money? And when such a character is fully fleshed out, it can make for a really interesting fictional person.

  2. I always feel potential fraudsters should read more crime fiction before they do the deed – they should know something will always happen before they manage to cover their crime! In one of my recent reads, Abir Mukherjee’s A Necessary Evil, there are many possible motives for the murder of the Maharaja’s son, just one of which is that it looks like someone might have been embezzling money from the Maharaja’s goldmines, but then the Maharaja decides to sell them and puts his son in charge of making the sale…

    • You know, FictionFan, you’re right. It ought to be some sort of code amongst fraudsters that they have to read some crime fiction. They’d certainly learn how difficult it is to get away with their crimes. And thank for mentioning A Necessary Evil. Folks, you want to read FictionFan’s excellent review of that novel. I admit I’ve not yet read that one, but I want to.

  3. Col

    I remember enjoying the Kerrigan book. He must be due something new out soon, it’s been a few years now. Again, no examples of my own to add.

    • I haven’t seen word of anything new from Kerrigan, either, Col. And you’re right; it’s been a few years since The Rage. I hope he’ll come out with something new soon.

  4. Dirty work in the accounts book is always a great plot turn, I enjoy books like that. So glad you mentioned Emma Lathen’s John Putnam Thatcher books – they always have an interesting financial element to their plots, and I am so enjoying re-discovering them.

    • I agree, Moira, that accounting skulduggery can make for an intriguing plot – no doubt about it. And the Lathen team really did a fine job of making that sort of plot interesting. There’s enough of the finance information so that you know what the crime is, but not so much that it’s ‘all paperwork.’

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