The ‘Roaring 20s’ came to a screeching halt in late October, 1929 with the crash of major stock markets. That crash was one of the main factors that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and, at least in the U.S., to fundamental changes in banking and stock market laws.
Of course, there’s a risk any time you speculate with your money. The company you think will do well may go under. Or, a company you decided not to invest in takes off and does well. Or, the person you thought you could trust turns out to be untrustworthy. Still, people do dream of making money from the market, and some people do well. So, it’s not surprising that so many invest.
And we certainly see investments and tension about them in crime fiction. That makes sense, too, when you consider what’s at stake. Someone who invests money (especially if it’s a considerable sum) expects a return. If things don’t go well, the consequences can be serious…
There’s a mention of investing in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men. One day, completely unexpectedly, Holmes says:
‘‘So, Watson,’ said he, suddenly, ‘you do not propose to invest in South African securities?”
That’s exactly what’s happened, but Watson doesn’t have any idea how Holmes knew – until he hears the explanation. It seems that Watson’s friend, Thurston, wanted him to invest in some South African property, but Watson decided not to do that. It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if he had invested.
In Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, we are introduced to New York homicide detective Oscar Piper. One day, he’s called to the New York Aquarium to investigate the murder of stockbroker Gerald Lester. Oddly enough, his body was discovered in the penguin pool by a group of schoolchildren who were there on a field trip. That’s how Piper meets their teacher, Hildegarde Withers. She takes an interest in the case, and she and Piper soon discover that more than one person could have had a motive for murder. This story takes place not long after the Great Crash, and many of Lester’s clients lost all their money. And then there’s Lester’s personal life to consider. He wasn’t exactly a faithful husband, and his wife wasn’t above reproach, either. It’s quite a complicated puzzle; in the end, though, Piper and Miss Withers find out the truth.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories mention investing and its consequences. For instance, in the short story, The Lost Mine, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are having a conversation about money. Hastings suggests that Poirot might want to invest some of his money in the Porcupine Oil Fields, which seems to have a promising prospectus. Poirot refuses, reminding Hastings of how important safe investment is. Then he goes on to say that the only risky investment he has is shares in Burma Mines, Ltd. And that’s only because those shares were a ‘thank you’ for solving a complicated case. It turns out that one of that company’s principals disappeared, and Poirot was able to find out exactly what happened to the man, and who was behind it all. So far, Poirot’s shares seem to have done well. I know, I know, fans of Dead Man’s Mirror and of Taken at the Flood.
At the beginning of Donna Leon’s About Face, Count Orazio Falier is thinking of investing his money in a business owned by Maurizio Cataldo. Before he does, he wants to be sure his investment will be safe, so he decides to have Cataldo ‘vetted.’ And there’s no-one better for that than Falier’s son-in-law, Commissario Guido Brunetti. Brunetti is accustomed to doing things in this informal way, and agrees to find out what he can about the man. With help from his boss’ assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, Brunetti gets some information. But then, he’s pulled away to investigate another case – the murder of a trucking company owner who might have been involved in illegal dumping. In the end, Brunetti discovers that there’s a link between the two cases. Among other things, this novel shows how people sometimes go outside ‘official channels’ and don’t exactly use a prospectus to get background on companies they’re considering for investment.
And then there’s Peter Temple’s Black Tide, the second in his series featuring sometime-lawyer Jack Irish. In this novel, Irish gets a visit from Des Connors, an old friend of his father’s. He wants Irish’s help with two things. For one thing, he wants a will done that excludes his son, Gary. For another, he wants Irish to find Gary and get back sixty thousand dollars that Des says he’s owed. It seems that Gary had gotten his father to lend him the money for investing in shares of a ‘sure thing’ that was ‘going through the roof.’ Then, Gary disappeared, and so did Des’ money. Irish agrees to see what he can do. The will isn’t difficult, but finding Gary proves to be much more dangerous than Irish would have thought. And in the end, he learns that this disappearance is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to corruption and fraud.
And that’s the thing about buying shares of stock, or otherwise investing in a company. You never really know what’s going to happen. Even safe investments vouched for by people you trust may not work out as planned. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of lots more.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight.