When They’ve Been Used So Ill*

A really interesting conversation with crime writer and fellow blogger Angela Savage has got me thinking about what’s sometimes called sexually transmitted debt. By that, I mean becoming responsible for a spouse or partner’s debt after being convinced (sometimes misled) into taking on new debt or financial risks without necessarily being aware of it at first. Some sexually transmitted debt involves a partner agreeing to share (or assume) the responsibility for a debt. It can work in other ways, too.

Whichever way it works, it can leave a person in a great deal of financial trouble. And, in crime fiction, it can add to plot lines, character development, tension, and more. Here are just a few examples; I’ll bet you’ll be able to think of more.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, we are introduced to Lord Stephen Horbury. He fell in love with a chorus girl named Cicely Bland, and married her without really getting to know her. The fact is, though, that Cicely has a fondness for gambling. She’s not averse to using cocaine, either. All of this has meant that she owes a lot of money. At first, her husband paid her debts, mostly for the sake of the family name.  But Cicely’s debts keep mounting. So, she borrows money from a French moneylender named Madame Giselle. Then, when she’s not able to pay what she owes, Madame Giselle threatens to reveal certain information that she has. Cicely is frantic, but this time, her husband is no longer willing to assume her debt. He even makes a public announcement that he will no longer be responsible for anything she owes. It all puts Cicely in a very difficult position, especially when Madame Giselle is murdered during an airline flight. Cicely is also on the flight, and becomes one of the suspects. Hercule Poirot, who was also a passenger, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who actually killed the victim.

In Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s Bloody Waters, we are introduced to Miami PI Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Solano. Jose Antonio and Lucia Moreno hire Solano to find the birth mother of their adopted daughter, Michelle, who is very ill. Doctors say that she needs a bone marrow transplant, and that only her biological mother can serve as her donor. Solano takes the case and finds out everything she can about the circumstances of Michelle’s birth and adoption. Along this way, she meets Barbara Perez, whose partner, Alberto Cruz, is mixed up in illegal businesses. Barbara knows what he’s doing, but there really isn’t much of a way out for her, mostly because she’s got children. Later in the novel, she gets herself (and Solano) into real danger because of the work her partner was doing, and the money from it that he was supposed to have hidden away. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a case of debt that’s transmitted. But it is an interesting case of being mixed up in a partner’s criminal activity, and risking a heavy price for that.

Peg Brantley’s Red Tide introduces readers to Jackie ‘Jax’ Sussman, medical examiner for Aspen Falls, Colorado. Her husband, Phil, is a philanderer with a gambling problem and other ‘expenses.’ Jax pays his debts and, so far, has stayed with him. But the cost of assuming that financial responsibility has wiped her out financially. Her sister, Jamie, is a loan officer for a local bank, so she’s all too well aware of Jax’s financial situation. But there’s very little she can do. In one plot thread of this story, both sisters get mixed up in a case of multiple murders when FBI agent Nicholas Grant is assigned to find 13 bodies in the Aspen Falls area. Convicted killer Leonard Bonzer has confessed to the murders, but won’t tell police where the bodies are. And, when other, more recent corpses are discovered, it looks as though there might be a ‘copycat’ at work. Admittedly, Jax’s financial situation isn’t the main plot thread, nor the reason for the murders. But it does show how sexually transmitted debt can work.

There’s also Natuso Kirino’s Out. This novel is the story of a group of women who work nights at a Tokyo factory that makes boxed lunches. One of them, Yayoi, is married to an abusive husband, Kenji, who has gambled away their savings. Now, she’s left with a heavily mortgaged home, little money, and no real way to pay off the debt – not on her salary. In a rage, she strangles Kenji with his own belt. Now, of course, she’s left with a body, and the very real likelihood that she’ll be arrested for the murder. So, she turns to her co-workers for help. Their choices draw the women into a very dark web of Tokyo’s underside.

And then there’s Chelsea Field’s series featuring Isobel ‘Izzy’ Avery. In Eat, Pray, Die, we learn that Izzy has recently moved from her home town of Adelaide to Los Angeles. Mostly, she made the move to escape her ex-husband, Steve. More specifically, she wants to escape Platypus Lending, a loan shark operation that she owes money to, thanks to Steve. Early in their marriage, Steve convinced her to

‘…get a two-hundred-grand-loan to invest in some “sure thing” stocks…’

Even she admits that was stupid. The plan backfired, the stock market crashed, and Steve hadn’t told her he’d borrowed money from a shady operation. Now, Izzy works as a professional taster for Los Angeles’ rich and famous. This series is among other things, an interesting look at how much trouble sexually transmitted debt can cause.

I’m really glad Angela brought the topic up, as it’s really interesting. And it’s a good reminder to be sure of the person you choose as a partner…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart‘s As Long As He Needs Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Chelsea Field, Natsuo Kirino, Peg Brantley

25 responses to “When They’ve Been Used So Ill*

  1. Fascinating as always Margot – it reminded me that we used to have notices in our local paper stating that X would no longer be responsible for debts incurred by Y – they always intrigued me. Sadly I have no examples to add to this fine bunch though.

    • Thanks, Cleo. And our papers used to have those notices, too. To me, there’s always a story behind those sometimes cryptic notices. I always used to wonder what happened.

  2. My current WIP features a young woman with a sordid (but hidden) past. She leaves her live-in lover to woo and marry a young preacher she’s been seeing on the side. Just so happens the preacher let slip he stands to soon inherit a fortune from grandma. Our young wife has her eyes set on Hollywood, but had been honing her acting “chops” in the porn industry (unbeknownst to hubby, of course). She figures with a cool million-plus in her pocketbook she can’t miss. But what to do with hubby? 🙂

    • Oh, that sounds like a great story, Michael! And that’s a real case of not knowing what you’re in for when you marry. I think you’ve got a real context and basis for an intriguing novel. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. All of these books sound very interesting, Margot, and most of them are new to me.

  4. Col

    Not a trait I can recall from my reading. I’ll keep an eye out for it!

    • You know, Col, I hadn’t thought much about it, myself, until Angela and I got to discussing it. Odd how things are there and you just don’t think about it, isn’t it?

  5. “Out” sounds great, especially since I have a weakness for Japanese crime fiction. Onto the wishlist it goes… *sighs*

    Michael Robotham’s “Watching You” is about a woman, Marnie, who’s being harrassed to repay her missing husband’s gambling debts. So she wants to have her husband declared dead so she claim the insurance. But when Joe O’Loughlin and Vincent Ruiz start investigating the husband’s disappearance it all becomes more complicated…

    • I’m really glad you mentioned Watching You, FictionFan. Robotham is such a talented writer, and that sort of plot is exactly what I had in mind with this post. Thanks for filling in the gap.

      And, far it from me *snicker, snicker* to add to your wishlist/TBR, but I honestly think you’d like Out. It’s certainly not a happy, light novel, but it shows how things can spin out of control. If you read it, I hope you’ll be glad that you did.

  6. I know some people thought it was a bit sickening, but I do recommend Out, it is a good portrayal of what can happen in a very tightly regulated, gender imbalanced society.
    And I have a friend who is in precisely such a situation: has taken on her husband’s debts and, now that they are getting divorced, it is quite difficult for her to disentangle herself from his ‘bad reputation’.

    • I feel for your friend, Marina Sofia. That’s just the sort of terrible situation people can get in because of sexually transmitted debt. I hope your friend finds a way to get out of it. And I agree: Out is hard to take in some places. But it does depict that imbalance very effectively.

  7. Margot, I’d never heard of the term “sexually transmitted debt” and its usage in crime fiction — all quite fascinating. Agreeing to share s spouse or partner’s debt, especially in crime fiction, sounds like such a daft idea; as it would in real life situations.

    • I don’t think the idea makes any sense, either, Prashant. I understand that sometimes, things happen. But, in general, I think it’s only wise to find out what a potential partner’s financial situation is like before agreeing to take on debt or ‘invest’ through that partner. It only leads to trouble.

  8. Fascinating take. I seem to recall back in the day, seeing adverts for people who had divorced saying they were letting the world know that they were not financially responsible for the debts of their former spouse. Wonder if that still happens? No idea what the law is now. Fab piece as ever. x

  9. A fine review. Thank you!

    Greg Jolley
    The Danser Novels

  10. An amazing in depth write on an interesting topic. You’re so well read. Very impressive.

  11. kathyd

    I’ve seen news stories on women who have been stuck with exes’ debts, including celebrities. And have seen stories about couples discussing whether to marry when one has a lot of student debt.
    So, it is still an issue.
    I haven’t come across this as a plot line in crime fiction though.

  12. It’s an honour to inspire a post on this blog, Margot. As you know, I originally raided your encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction on behalf of a friend who is writing a novel on the topic of ‘sexually transmitted debt’. I have friends and family members who’ve experienced this, and it has all sorts of implications. Declaring bankruptcy in Australia means surrendering your passport, for example. No wonder it is rich fodder for crime writers. Thanks again for lending your insights and expertise to the topic.

    • I really enjoyed our conversation on the topic, Angela. It’s something that happens to many people, I’d guess; I’m sorry to hear it’s happened in your inner circle. And, as you say, there are consequences, which can be devastating. When people lose their credit rating, they can’t buy cars, get mortgages, and so on. And some companies in the US consider creditworthiness when they’re hiring. That’s not to mention the emotional toll. It is, as you say, excellent fodder for a crime story, and I wish your friend well with hers.

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