The desire to have children is an important force in a lot of lives. There are several reasons for this; one of them is to be able to pass along money, a business, properties, or, in some cases, a title. The need for an heir has motivated plenty of marriages, and sometimes, it can wreak havoc in a family. After all, people will do a lot if it means the chance at a fortune or a lot of power (or both). There are plenty of examples of how this plays out in crime fiction. Here are just a few; I know you can think of a lot more than I could.
The topic comes up in several of Agatha Christie’s stories. After the Funeral, for instance, is the story of the wealthy Abernethie family. Patriarch Richard Abernethie lost his only child, so he had no heir. His solution was to invite the various members of his family to visit, to try to settle on someone. That hasn’t gone according to plan, though, as Abernethie wasn’t satisfied that anyone in the family would be a suitable heir. When he dies, the family gathers for the funeral and the reading of his Will. According to the terms, his fortune is to be equally divided amongst the remaining family members. The day after that funeral, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, is murdered. Family solicitor Mr. Entwhistle believes that the two events are related, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. As he does so, Poirot finds that several members of the family are in need of money. In a way, the fact that Abernethie didn’t name one specific heir has caused conflict in the family.
In Sarah Dunant’s Birth Marks, we meet London PI Hannah Wolfe. She is hired by Augusta Patrick, who is concerned about her surrogate daughter/protégée Carolyn Hamilton. Carolyn is a dancer who went off to pursue her own career, but she always kept in contact with her mentor. The letters and postcards have stopped coming, though, and now Augusta is worried. She wants Hannah to find Carolyn, or at least find out what happened to her. Then, the body of a young woman is pulled from the Thames. When it turns out to be Carolyn, Hannah knows that this is more than a case of a young woman who just got busy with life and forgot to write. She traces the young woman’s life from the last time she wrote, and finds out that she had gone to France. When Hannah travels there, too, she discovers that the truth about Carolyn’s death has to do with the need for an heir, and with a family who’s made a fortune.
Fans of historical crime fiction will know that C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake is a London-based solicitor who lives during the Tudor years, and the reign of King Henry VIII. As you’ll know, the king was desperate for an heir. That need had a lot to do with the palace intrigue of his reign, and it’s arguable that it had a great deal to do with his break with the Roman Catholic Church. The Tudor years were uncertain, even dangerous, times, and that’s the world that Shardlake must negotiate. As the fortunes of the king’s wives rise and fall, and things change at court, Shardlake has to walk a very fine line in order to stay alive. The topic of the king’s heir comes up in several of the novels, and adds to the atmosphere of the stories.
Boyd Taylor’s Necessities is the fourth of his novels to feature Austin lawyer Donnie Ray Cuinn. In it, David Lewis runs into an old flame, Cordelia Lehrer, and they re-kindle their romance. Cordelia’s father, Kingston Lehrer, is a newspaper magnate who’s looking for an heir to his newspaper empire, and most importantly, someone who can produce another heir. It might be a calculating attitude, but David and Cordelia fall in with the plan and marry. Soon enough, they are expecting a child. Then David is accused of murder. It seems that he shot a man, although he doesn’t remember doing so. He had a blackout just before the killing, and isn’t sure exactly what happened, although he is convinced he’s guilty. Cuinn takes the case and prepares to defend his client in court. It’s going to be a difficult case. David is an Iraq War veteran who’s suffered from some mental as well as physical problems (he’s a double amputee). Is it a case of a PTSD blackout? Is David hiding something more sinister? And what might it have to do with Kingston Lehrer’s determination to have an heir?
And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye. Harry Bosch has left the LAPD, and is now a PI who sometimes works with the San Fernando (California) police. In one plot line of the novel, he is hired by wealthy Whitney Vance to find a missing woman. Vance is a very wealthy elderly ‘blueblood’ who wants an heir for the vast fortune he himself inherited. He never married, but he did have a love affair years earlier with what he calls ‘a Mexican girl.’ He never stopped loving her, although his father forced the two to end it. She was pregnant at the time, and now, Vance wants Bosch to find the woman and her child. If there is no heir, then his corporation’s board will get the family fortune, so there are some powerful people who have a strong incentive to keep Bosch from finding out the truth.
For a lot of people, having a child is one of life’s finest experiences. And for some, having an heir is of paramount importance. The money and power that can be involved can make for a strong motive for all sorts of things. Little wonder the topic comes up in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shamen’s Do What You Will.