The thing about ‘easy money’ is that it almost never is. And most people know that. But that doesn’t stop people padding their accounts – or trying to do so. And that’s often when trouble starts. For one thing, it’s illegal to embezzle or otherwise take other people’s money. That means the police tend to take an interest in such matters. For another, those who’ve been cheated don’t tend to take kindly to it. And that can lead to consequences, too. Still, there are plenty of people who think they can get away with that sort of crime, whether it’s ‘to rob Peter to pay Paul,’ or ‘just until things get better,’ or ‘just this once.’
It certainly happens enough in real life, and it happens in crime fiction, too. And it doesn’t tend to work out well for those who take that risk. For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body?, an architect named Alfred Thipps is shocked one day when he discovers the body of a dead man in his bathtub. The police begin to investigate; and, of course, Thipps himself is very much a ‘person of interest.’ He claims to be innocent, though, and his employer, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, believes him. She asks her son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to look into the matter. Wimsey finds that another odd event has occurred: the disappearance of financier Rueben Levy. And it’s discovered that Levy was engaged in some questionable oil shares transactions. It turns out that the body in Thipps’ bathtub is not Levy’s, but the two incidents are related, as are those shady trading deals.
In Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, New York schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers takes her class on a field trip to the New York Aquarium. Just as the group is about to leave the aquarium, one of Miss Withers’ students notices the body of a dead man sliding into the penguin pool. Inspector Oscar Piper is called to the scene, and begins the investigation. The victim is soon identified as stockbroker Gerald Lester, and it’s not long before Piper and Miss Withers uncover a number of possible motives and suspects. For one thing, Lester’s wife, Gwen, has been having an affair with his attorney, Philip Seymour, and both of them were at the aquarium at the time of the murder. For another, the story takes place just after the Great Crash of 1929 that was immediately followed by the worldwide Great Depression. Many of Lester’s clients lost everything, and more than one of them could easily have wanted revenge. There are other possibilities, too. Each in a different way, Piper and Miss Withers look into the case, and find out that Lester’s ‘unconventional’ ways of doing business played a role in his murder.
Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood tells the story of the Cloade family. Wealthy Gordon Cloade, the family patriarch, had always told his siblings and their families that they wouldn’t have to worry about money. And they’ve always depended on him to help provide for their needs. Then, to everyone’s shock, Cloade married a widow named Rosaleen Underhay. Before he had time to alter his will, though, he was killed in a World War II bomb blast. Now, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything, and the rest of the Cloades will get nothing. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay, may still be alive. If so, this means that Rosaleen won’t be able to inherit anything. So, all of the Cloades have a stake in Arden’s visit, and are all involved on at least some level when he is killed one night. Hercule Poirot has already met two of the Cloades, so he takes an interest in the case. One of the people he gets to know is the victim’s brother, Jeremy. And it turns out that Jeremy Cloade has been using clients’ funds inappropriately. That misappropriation of money gives him a very high stake in the outcome of this mystery…
Emma Lathen’s John Putnam Thatcher is an executive with the Sloan Guaranty Trust bank. So, he’s seen his share of attempts to embezzle or otherwise get the use of people’s money. For instance, in Going For the Gold, the bank has gotten the exclusive contract for providing banking services for the (1980) Lake Placid Winter Olympics. So, Thatcher goes to Lake Placid to see that all of the bank’s operations are going smoothly. When Yves Bisson, a French ski jumper, is murdered, everyone thinks at first that it’s a terrorist attack. Soon enough, though, Thatcher is distracted by reports that the bank has been targeted in a counterfeiting scheme. It turns out that Bisson’s death, and other incidents that happen, are related to this scheme, and to someone’s need to cover up theft with counterfeiting and murder.
And then there’s Emmet Sweetman, whom we meet in one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. He’s a crooked banker who’s been involved in more than one dubious transaction. During the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was enough money coming in that Sweetman could use depositors’ money and other funds, and not get caught. There was always going to be income to cover up what he did. But then, the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years ended, and Sweetman ended up owing a lot of money to some very dangerous people. And one night, two of them shoot him in his own home. Dublin DS Bob Tidey investigates the murder, together with Garda Rose Cheney.
If there’s anything this and other crime novels tell us, it’s that it’s never a good idea to use other people’s money without their approval. In some way or another, it always seems to come back to haunt. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Robben Ford’s Lateral Climb.