A lot of us grumble about paying taxes. I know I do, at times. But taxes fund our infrastructure, among many other things. And I’d argue that most of us like it when roads and bridges are maintained, letters and parcels delivered, fires put out, and so on.
But there’s another reason to pay one’s taxes. It’s illegal not to do so. And national taxing authorities do not take kindly to tax evasion. That’s how Al Capone was eventually brought down, as you’ll no doubt know (he was convicted of tax evasion on 17 October, 1931). Even in crime fiction, people get in a lot of trouble when they don’t pay taxes.
For example, in James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much, we are introduced to a down-and-out farmer named Jack Macdonald. He’s just lost his property due to non-payment of taxes, and has to start over. He begins working for his friend, Smuts Milligan, who owns a local store. Milligan wants to expand his business into a roadhouse and dance hall, and Macdonald works with him to put his plans in motion. The business doesn’t go as planned, though, and both Milligan and Macdonald become desperate for money. And financial desperation is, as we all know, is one of the surest ways to real trouble. In this case, it leads to brutal murder. This novel may not be for the faint of heart, but it shows clearly what can happen when a little money trouble leads to not paying taxes.
David Dodge’s Death and Taxes is the story of George MacLeod, a successful San Francisco accountant. A major part of the reason he’s successful is that he’s very good at finding tax loopholes for his clients. He is quite creative at finding ways to save them money, but at the same time not raise too many ‘red flags’ for anyone who might be auditing either his business or his clients’ tax returns. One day, he gets a new client, Marian Wolff, who wants him to help her resolve a difficult tax situation. He’s been offered a very large fee if he helps her avoid charges of tax evasion, and get a tax refund, even though she hasn’t filed tax paperwork recently. It doesn’t make anything easier that Marian’s father, Harald Wolff, is a wealthy bootlegger who’s linked up with all sorts of dubious people. MacLeod’s got his work cut out for him, as the saying goes, so he asks his business partner, James ‘Whit’ Whitney, to come back early from a trip to Santa Cruz, and help with this client’s case. By the time Whit returns, though, it’s too late. MacLeod’s been shot. Now, Whit’s got to finish Marian Wolff’s tax return, and find out who killed his partner, if he’s going to stay alive himself.
Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins knows all too well about paying taxes. In A Red Death, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter states that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes, and will go to prison if he doesn’t pay. Rawlins knows that he can’t pay that much money, and starts mentally planning for a term of imprisonment. Then, he gets a reprieve from FBI agent Daryll Craxton. It seems that the FBI has targeted a suspected communist named Chaim Weitzman (this novel takes place in the early 1950’s during the McCarthy Era in the US). Craxton tells Rawlins that if he helps bring Weitzman down, Craxton can make his tax troubles go away. Rawlins sees no other option, so he agrees to the plan. It turns out that Weitzman volunteers at a local church, so Rawlins gets involved with the church, too, in order to get close to his quarry. Then, two murders occur there, and Rawlins is framed for them. Now, he has to find out who the real killer is and clear his own name. To add to this, he’s gotten to know Weitzman, and finds that he likes the man. So, he also has to walk a fine line between keeping his new friend safe, and keeping his commitment to the FBI.
There’s also Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered, the first of her Hilary Tamar series. Tamar is a former Oxford don who still mentors former student Timothy Shepherd, who’s become a London attorney. In this novel, one of Shepherd’s lawyer friends, Julia Larwood, is facing a great deal of trouble because she owes a lot of money in back taxes. So, in part to ease the stress of dealing with that problem, she decides to take an Art Lovers holiday and tour in Venice. It’s supposed to be a chance to relax, enjoy the time in Venice, and meet a young and willing man for a fling. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Larwood ends up being accused of the murder of Ned Watson, who was also on the trip, and whom she managed to seduce. There’s plenty of evidence against her, but she claims she’s innocent. Her friends work to clear her name, and find out who really killed Watson. In an interesting plot twist, it turns out that Watson worked for Inland Revenue (now HM Revenue and Customs). And that goes to show that life isn’t any easier for tax agency employees than it is for the rest of us taxpayers… (I know, fans of The Sirens Sang of Murder. Taxes are a big part of that novel, too.).
And then there’s John D. MacDonald’s Pale Gray For Guilt. ‘Salvage Consultant’ Travis McGee discovers that an old football friend, Tush Bannon, is being pressured heavily to sell his small marina/motel business in order to pave the way for a large land development scheme. Bannon resists, but his opponents do everything possible (including a lot that’s at the very least unscrupulous) to get him to change his mind. Then, Bannon is found dead of an apparent suicide. McGee doesn’t think his former friend killed himself, and looks into the matter on behalf of Bannon’s widow, Jan, and their children. The trail leads to land speculator Preston LaFrance, and high-powered businessman Gary Santo. These are men who are thoroughly familiar with all of the ways to evade taxes and shelter their money. And they are ruthless. But McGee has his economist friend Meyer on his side. And together, they create their own financial scheme to ‘sting’ their opponents. Among other things, this novel shows just how people go about trying to duck their tax responsibilities.
But that’s never a good idea. Tax agencies are relentless, and they do not appreciate being bilked. And that tension can make for a solid story line.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from April Wine’s Money Talks.