One of the famous quotes usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin goes like this:
‘Now I’ve a sheep and a cow, every body bids me good morrow.’
Whether or not Franklin actually originated this saying, there’s a lot of wisdom to it. People who find themselves in possession of a large fortune often discover that they have a whole new group of ‘best friends,’ relatives they never knew about, and ‘loyal business associates.’ It’s something I’ve been thinking about as the US Powerball lottery jackpot reaches a record high (as I write this, it’s at US$1.4 billion. Yes, billion).
A lot of us dream of what it’d be like to be that rich. But it’s not without pitfalls. One of them is the number of people who want their share of all that money. It’s certainly true in real life, and it’s all over crime fiction, too. Space only permits me a few examples; I know you’ll think of lots more.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father Charles. There’s evidence against him, too; he was known to have had a serious quarrel with his father just before the killing. But he says he’s innocent, and his fiancée Alice Turner believes him. She goes to the police to plead for his release. Inspector Lestrade thinks the police have the right man, but he asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the case. Holmes agrees, and he and Dr. Watson investigate. They discover that McCarthy was originally from Australia, and made quite a bit of money there. That money ended up attracting the wrong kind of attention…
In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. She’s worked as a paid companion for ten years, in the employ of wealthy Mrs. Harfield. When Mrs. Harfield dies, Katherine is startled to discover that she has inherited her employer’s entire fortune. Right away, those who find out about this are more than eager to get their share. For example, one of Mrs. Harfield’s distant relatives writes, insisting that she and her husband should inherit, and that they’ll raise legal issues if Katherine objects. Then Katherine gets another letter, this time from a cousin of her own, Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Tamplin has learned of Katherine’s newfound wealth, and of course, wants whatever part of it she can get. So she invites Katherine to visit her in Nice, so she can ‘introduce her to the right people.’ Not being a fool, Katherine knows exactly why her cousin has suddenly become so interested in her. Still, she’s always wanted to travel, so she decides to go. That trip gets Katherine involved in the strangling murder of another wealthy woman, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering.
In Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death, Dr. Edwin Carr overhears a conversation between Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker. This leads Carr to tell them about a case of his own that’s been troubling him. He was treating elderly Miss Agatha Dawson for cancer. When she died, no-one was surprised about it, and her death was put down to her disease. But Carr has never been satisfied that her death was natural. Although his view has more or less cost him his patients, Carr still thinks he’s right. So he asks Wimsey and Parker to look into the matter, and they start to ask questions. They find that more than one person has claimed or taken advantage of kinship to try to get some of Miss Dawson’s fortune.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma. Precious Ramotswe uses some of her inheritance from her father to open her own private detective agency. One of her first clients is Happy Bapetse. As is the custom in her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly parents and other relatives is one of her responsibilities. So, when a man shows up at her door, claiming to be her long-lost father, Happy is pleased to take him in. She earns a good living as an accountant at a bank, and has been doing well for herself, so caring for him is not a problem. But Happy has come to suspect that the person claiming to be her father isn’t really her father. Instead, so she tells Mma. Ramotswe, she thinks he may be an imposter who perhaps knew her father and knew that she had done well in life. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter, and finds a very clever way to discover whether the man claiming to be Happy’s father really is who he claims to be.
And then there’s Charity Wiser, whom we meet in Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas. She is a very wealthy executive and heiress, who has come to suspect that one of her relatives may be trying to kill her. At her behest, her granddaughter Flora hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out which relative it is. To do that, she invites Quant to join the family on a cruise aboard her private boat. The plan is to have him meet everyone, and ‘vet’ the various family members. As it turns out, Charity is not popular in the family. Each member dislikes her for one reason or another, some more than others. But because of her money, they do her bidding, which includes all sorts of ‘family trips’ designed to make them all uncomfortable. It’s surprising (or perhaps not!) what people will do if they think they’ll get a lot of money in the bargain.
And that’s the thing about coming into a lot of money. One of the consequences is that you suddenly find yourself getting acquainted with good friends, close relatives and helpful business partners you never knew existed. But that won’t stop me dreaming of that big Powerball win. Fortunately, I have very good friends all over the world who will help me make wise decisions about how to spend it all… ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Cover of the Rolling Stone, made famous by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.