There’s something about jewels. In part, it’s their mystique, of course. But they are considered to have a lot of intrinsic value. What’s more, they’re often small, so they can be easily transported, traded, and so on. It’s little wonder, then, that the jewel trade is such a lucrative one. Companies such as De Beers have made fortunes through the years. That alone means that the jewel trade is a very attractive target for all sorts of crime.
That, plus the hold the jewel trade has on a lot of people’s imaginations, means that there are plenty of references to it in crime fiction. Here are just a few. I know you’ll think of others.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Demetrius Papopolous. Based in Paris, he is a highly respected dealer in jewels and valuable antiques. So, he’s aware of it right away when new collections of diamonds, rubies, and other jewels go on the market. This expertise makes him a very useful contact for Hercule Poirot, who’s tracing a valuable ruby known as Heart of Fire. It was purchased by wealthy American businessman Rufus Van Aldin for his daughter, Ruth. But she’s been murdered, and the ruby (along with the necklace that held it) is gone. As one angle of investigation, Poirot tries to determine what’s happened to the jewel. As he interacts with M. Papopolous, we learn a little about the side of the jewel trade that involves exclusive dealers and their clients.
Jewel dealers have played an important role in times of anxiety, when people were scrambling to get as much ready cash as possible. For instance, during the last years of the Weimar Republic, many Germans were desperate for money. Their currency had little value, and the Great Depression of the early 1930’s was in full force. We see a bit of that in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. Journalist Hannah Vogel lives and works in 1931 Berlin, not long before the Nazis take power. Everything is scarce, and very few people have money. Hannah herself has been slowly selling her jewelry, as her salary gives her barely enough to keep going. In the main plot of this story, she discovers to her shock that her brother, Ernst, has died. She wants to find out how and why, but she has to move very quietly, so as not to attract any attention. Still, she doesn’t give up; and in the end, she finds out the truth about Ernst’s death. Along the way, she has more than one conversation with Herr Mordecai Klein, the jeweler with whom she’d been doing business. Those conversations shed some interesting light on the way people used the jewel trade to manage during that time of panic.
Because the jewel trade is so lucrative, many governments cooperate with the mining industry to ensure a steady supply of gems. That’s what’s happened between the government of Botswana and the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC) in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. The story starts when Professor of Ecology Bengani Sibisi and his guide discover the remains of an unknown man near rural Dale’s Camp. At first, it looks as though the dead man wandered too far from camp and was attacked by wild animals. But it’s not quite that simple, and Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu begins to look into the matter more closely. There seems to be a connection between this death (and another) and BCMC, so Bengu and his team pay particular attention to the way the company does things. So, readers learn about how diamonds are discovered, how their ownership is established, and how they are bought, sold, and transferred.
Sometimes, of course, the jewel trade has a darker side. In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, for instance, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team are faced with a puzzling case. An unidentified Senegalese immigrant has been shot, execution-style, at one of the city’s open-air markets. The first step in trying to find out who the killer was is to find out more about the victim. So, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello start asking questions about the man. It takes some time, both because of the language barrier, and because the man was in Italy illegally. But eventually, Brunetti and Vianello find the home where the dead man lived. As they look through his possessions, they find a hidden cache of diamonds. Now, the case takes on a whole new complexity as the detectives link this murder to the illegal ‘conflict diamonds’ trade.
And then there’s Faye Kellerman’s Sanctuary. In one plot thread of this novel, LAPD Detective Peter Decker and his police partner, Marge Dunn, investigate a strange disappearance. Wealthy Los Angeles jewel dealer Arik Yalom and his family have disappeared. Later, the Yalom parents are found dead, and their two teenage sons are suspected. But they’re still missing. So, Decker and Dunn follow leads through Los Angeles’ diamond district, all the way to South Africa, and eventually to Israel, the Yalom family’s original home. Along the way, readers learn something about the diamond industry and its worldwide reach.
Diamonds and other jewels really do have a fascination for a lot of people. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that we see that industry showing up in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Barry and Don Black’s Diamonds Are Forever.