You’d think that inheriting a lot of money would be a cause for celebration. After all, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a fortune? Not if crime fiction has anything to say about it. For one thing, there’s the never-ending headaches of administering wealth (or finding someone trustworthy to do it for you). For another, inheriting a lot of money has a way of making a person a target. It can be hazardous to one’s health to come into a large inheritance.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a new client, Helen Stoner. She tells him an unsettling story about the death of her sister, Julia. Before the tragedy, Julia had heard strange, soft whistles and other noises during the night. Other weird things had been happening, too. Now, Helen is frightened because she’s been hearing the same noises that Julia described. She’s afraid of what it all means, and she wants Holmes to investigate. It turns out she’s quite right to be worried. Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Stokes Moran, the Stoner family home, and look into the matter. They find that Helen is, indeed, in grave danger, and that it all has to do with an inheritance.
Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask is the first in her series featuring Miss Maude Silver. In it, Charles Moray returns to England after a time away. He goes to his family home only to discover that it’s being occupied by a gang of thieves led by a man named Grey Mask. Worse, it seems that his former fiancée, Margaret Langton, might be mixed up with them. A friend of Moray’s suggests that he seek out Miss Silver to look into the matter, and this Moray does. In the meantime, we are introduced to Margot Standing, whose very wealthy father has been lost at sea, and who is now set to inherit a considerable fortune. Unbeknownst to Margot, this makes her vulnerable, as Grey Mask and his gang have targeted her. What’s more, her cousin Egbert, who is also a possible heir, has tried to coerce her into marrying him, so the fortune stays in the family. Margot refuses him and leaves her home. That’s how she encounters Margaret Langton, who takes her in. Even away from home, though, Margot is still in grave danger unless Moray, Margaret, and of course, Miss Silver, can find out who Grey Mask is and what the gang’s plans are.
A large fortune plays a central role in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Wealthy Lady Dormer, who is on her deathbed, calls her brother, General Fentiman, to her side. There, he learns that under the terms of her will, his grandson will likely inherit her wealth. This is good news to the general, as his grandson is very much in need of money. It all depends, though, on which sibling dies first. If Lady Dormer dies first, then the grandson inherits. If General Fentiman dies first, then the money passes to a cousin of Lady Dormer’s. Not long afterwards, General Fentiman dies while sitting in his customary chair at the Bellona Club. Lady Dormer has passed away, too, and it’s not clear right away who died first. Lord Peter Wimsey is also a member of the Bellona Club, and he looks into the matter. He has two mysteries to unravel: which person died first; and, whether the deaths were both natural. It’s not an easy case, and it’s interesting to see how the possibility of a large inheritance can make people vulnerable.
There’s another examples of someone left very vulnerable by an inheritance in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…). In it, wealthy Gordon Cloade had always promised his siblings and their children that he would ensure their financial well-being. So, none of them had ever really worried about money. Then, unexpectedly, Cloade married Rosaleen Underhay. Shortly thereafter, Cloade is killed in a (WW II) bomb blast. It soon comes out that he never made a will, so his widow automatically inherits. And that’s a serious problem for Cloade’s other family members. All of them have financial problems, and all of them depended on Cloade’s will to protect them. Now, Rosaleen is very vulnerable to pleas for money and worse as she tries to navigate life as a rich widow. Then, a suspicious death changes everything for her and for the family. Hercule Poirot becomes curious when two members of the Cloade family ask him to become involved in the matter, and he slowly finds out the truth.
There’s also E.C. Lorac’s Accident By Design. Sir Charles Vanstead is an elderly, wealthy ‘blueblood’ who’s in ill health. His son, Gerald, is set to inherit everything when Sir Charles dies, but that doesn’t sit well with anyone. For one thing, Gerald isn’t exactly a pillar of responsibility. For another, his wife, Meriel, is considered ‘common.’ She’s Australian, and not from the aristocracy, and that counts heavily against her. When Gerald and Meriel are killed in a car crash, it looks at first like a tragic accident. But then, their young son, Alan, dies of what appears to be poison. Now, it looks as though someone deliberately targeted that family. And the reason could likely be that they were to inherit the Vanstead fortune and the family home. Chief Inspector MacDonald investigates, and finds out what really happened to the family.
No matter how nice it might seem to inherit a large fortune, it’s not a perfect solution to life. Sometimes wealth causes at least as many problems as it solves. And those problems can end up being deadly…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Tom Gray.