As this is posted, it’s 59 years since Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith murdered the members of the Clutter family in their Kansas home. They’d heard that there was a lot of money hidden on the Clutter farm, and they were determined to get it. As you’ll know, their story was made famous in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which is a fictional account of what happened.
Hickock and Smith aren’t by any means the only ones to have been lured by the promise of treasure. The possibility of finding valuable jewels, money, etc. has fueled people’s imaginations for a very long time. And it’s a very common plot point in crime fiction, too. Greed, and what it can do to people, is a very effective theme in a novel.
Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins as Colonel John Hardcastle and some other soldiers storm India’s Palace of Seringaptam in 1799. There are stories of treasure, and, in fact, Hardcastle finds a valuable diamond called the Moonstone there. The stone is supposedly cursed, so that anyone who removes it is also cursed, as is anyone who comes into possession of it. That legend doesn’t bother Hardcastle, though, and he removes the jewel. Later, he bequeaths it to his niece, Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. She duly receives the gift, and it soon causes much more trouble than the Verinders had imagined. Throughout the story, it’s interesting to see how stories of this treasure, and the possibility of getting it, impact the characters.
In Agatha Christie’s short story Manx Gold, we meet Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker, a recently-engaged couple who travel to the Isle of Man. They’re there to hear the reading of the will of Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles. Also present are two other potential heirs to his wealth. But it’s not going to be easy to get the money. It seems that Uncle Myles found buried treasure on the island. According to the will, each potential heir will be given sets of clues to where Uncle Myles’ treasure is. The first to find that treasure gets to claim it. All of the heirs receive their clues, and the race is on. The question is, of course, whether all of the contestants will stay alive long enough to find the treasure…
Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace begins as a dog discovers the bone of a human finger in the village of Littlebourne. Inspector Richard Jury is called to the village to look into the matter. He soon discovers the rest of the body, which is identified as Cora Binns. It seems she had gone to Littlebourne to interview for a secretarial job, but never got to the appointment. Cora worked for a London secretarial agency, so Jury looks for London connections as well as for motives for murder among Littlebourne’s residents. In the meantime, Jury’s friend, Melrose Plant, has also gone to Littlebourne, as he is intrigued by the mystery. He and Jury find that this murder has its roots in a robbery that took place a year earlier, as well as stolen jewels and an attack on another resident of the village. And it shows that that desire for treasure can get to nearly anyone.
Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series begins with Crocodile in the Sandbank. In it, Miss Peabody has planned a trip to Egypt. At the time that this novel takes place (1884), ‘proper’ ladies do not travel alone, so she’s brought a companion. When her companion becomes ill and has to return to England, Miss Peabody is worried that she may have to cancel her trip. Then, by chance, she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who’s just been abandoned by the man she’d hoped to marry. Her family had disapproved of him, so she turned her back on them. With no money and no options, she’s only too happy to serve as Miss Peabody’s companion, and the trip goes ahead as planned. In the course of their travels, the two women meet archaeologists Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Amarna. The two women visit the dig, and soon get caught up in a mystery involving tales of a mummy that walks at night, hidden treasure, and a possible curse on the dig site. As the novel goes on, it’s interesting to see how the promise of riches and treasure can impact people.
There’s also Edmund Bohan’s The Lost Taonga. In that novel, geologist Julian von Haast (who existed in real life) is duped into leading a group of thieves, including Countess Margarita Szechnyi and her partner in crime, Boyland (‘the Collector’) to a sacred burial cave on New Zealand’s South Island. The understanding was that the visitors would see the cave but remove nothing from it. The thieves, of course, have other plans, and, later that night, they return to the cave and plunder it. The local Māori, to whom the cave and its contents are sacred, are furious at this desecration. So, when there’s a murder, they are blamed for it. But this murder isn’t as simple as that. Inspector Patrick O’Rorke investigates the matter, and he finds that the trail leads from New Zealand, to Chile, and to Europe, and involves some rich and powerful people.
There’s just something about legends and stories of treasure. They’ve captured people’s imaginations for many years, and it’s easy to see why. And that impulse can make for a very effective element in a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Green Day’s Ordinary World.