Have you ever noticed those truly elegant, super-expensive homes? The kind that ‘the rest of us’ could never even imagine owning? The kind you see in magazines or television shows? Yeah, those homes. One of the interesting things about them is that they tend to be set apart. Sometimes they’re in gated, even guarded, communities. Sometimes the properties themselves are gated and/or guarded. Either way, just looking at the houses is a reminder that the very wealthy often live lives that are far removed from the rest of us. And very often (certainly not always!) that’s by design.
When it’s handled well, that physical gulf between the very rich and other people can add some interesting tension to a novel. Little wonder it’s been a part of literature for a very long time (I’m thinking, for instance, of Émile Zola’s Germinal). And it’s woven into crime fiction, too.
For example, in Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, we are introduced to the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Drs. Jack and Patricia Wyatt-Yarmouth are both very wealthy, influential people. Their children, Jason and Wendy, have been raised with every privilege, too. It’s that sort of family. One Christmas, Jason and Wendy take a ski trip to the small British Columbia town of Trafalgar. With them, they bring four of their wealthy friends, and stay in a local B&B. On Christmas Eve, Jason and his friend, Ewan Williams, are in the group’s rented SUV when it skids on ice and plunges into the Upper Kootenay River. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith goes to the scene and begins the investigation. Soon, though, she and her boss, Sergeant John Winters, discover that, while Jason was killed by the accident, Ewan had already been dead for some time before the incident. Now the investigation becomes a murder investigation. When they hear of their son’s death, the Wyatt-Yarmouth parents travel to Trafalgar. It’s immediately obvious that they are not accustomed to mixing with ‘regular folks.’ Their attitude causes no end of difficulty and conflict as Smith and Winters try to solve the mystery.
Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in late 1970s Buenos Aires. It’s a very dangerous time to be in the city, what with the military in firm control of the government. Anyone who is even suspected of disagreeing with the government, or of ‘causing trouble’ is likely to be killed, or worse. No-one is really trustworthy, and even a whisper of dissidence could easily be passed along. Against this backdrop, police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano investigates the murder of Elías Biterman, a successful pawnbroker and moneylender. The death looks at first like a standard army ‘hit,’ so it’s obvious that those in authority want the case left alone. But that’s not the kind of detective Lescano is. So, he begins to ask a few questions. The trail leads to some very high places, too, as people from even the highest socioeconomic levels made use of Biterman’s services. And one of the important elements in this novel is the divide between the very rich and everyone else. The wealthy separate themselves, and do everything they can to jealously guard their privilege. And the desire to penetrate that ‘wall’ factors into the story.
Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows also takes place in the Buenos Aires area (about 30 miles away), this time, at the end of the 1990s. Most of the action takes place in an ultra-exclusive residential community called Cascade Heights Country Club. Only the very wealthiest people can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before being allowed to purchase a home in ‘the Heights.’ Every effort is made to keep these very rich people from having to interact with ‘regular people,’ too. There’s a wall, a guard, and a procedure for showing identification before being allowed on the property. Disputes aren’t handled by the regular police, either, but by a special Commission set up by the residents. Many of those who live in the Heights feel a real sense of security living in a community that’s removed from the rest of the area. That ‘safety net’ is torn, though, when the financial problems of the late 1990s/early 2000s find their way into the Heights. Little by little the security is eroded, until tragedy strikes.
Kalpana Swaminatham’s Greenlight is the sixth in her series featuring retired Mumbai police detective Lalli. In it, a series of ugly child abductions and murders has struck a local slum called Kandewadi. At first, the incidents don’t get very much press or police attention. But finally, there’s enough pressure on the police to step up the investigation, and Inspector Savio is assigned to the case, He consults regularly with Lalli, so she, too, gets involved in the case. Throughout the novel, there’s a strong sense of the gulf between the very rich and everyone else. The rich separate themselves, and it’s clear that they want to stay far removed from, especially, the poor. And there’s a lot of resentment about that fact that plays a role in the story.
There are, of course, other series where we see the way the wealthy live quite far removed from everyone else. For instance, there’s Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series, which takes place in Madras (today’s Chennai) in the 1920s, in the last years of the British Raj. India is still in the hands of the wealthy and titled English, and they want to retain control. Most of the English in India live in separate communities. The really wealthy ones belong to exclusive clubs, where only the ‘right’ people belong. In other ways, too, many of the wealthy English choose to remain at a distance from any of the ‘regular’ people.
And there’s Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair series. Those novels take place in the early 1930s, mostly in New South Wales. At the time, the Great Depression has taken firm hold, and many people are desperate. There is a small group, including the Sinclair family, who have money, power and privilege. And many want to keep it that way. So, the very wealthy separate themselves, and work to keep that physical divide between themselves and ‘everyone else.’ Rowly himself isn’t nearly so conservative, and has friends from different socioeconomic strata, much to the dismay of his older brother and head of the family, Wilfred.
And Wilfred’s not alone. There are plenty of fictional wealthy people and communities that try to stay as far removed as possible from the rest of us. That can add some interesting tension to a novel.
Ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a ‘photo of Billy Joel’s Florida home. Yes, I took several shots of it during a recent trip. What?! 😉
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Close to the Borderline.