Anyone might get into a bit of a financial bind. Sometimes it’s because of some sort of emergency, and sometimes it’s because of a fondness for gambling or betting. When that happens, people can’t always go to a bank for a loan; it’s just not a viable option for some. So, they go to moneylenders, who will often make riskier loans, but charge very high rates. Not all moneylenders are shady dealers, but some are. They’ve gotten quite a bad reputation, but they do fill a need. And they can make for interesting, useful fictional characters.
In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot solves the murder of retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Several of the characters have a motive, including Ackroyd’s sister-in-law, who lives in the house with her daughter Flora. Mrs. Ackroyd has gotten into debt because her spending habits exceed the allowance she’s been given, and Ackroyd was not particularly open-handed. So, she’s naturally a ‘person of interest’ in the case. One day, she’s having a conversation with Dr. James Sheppard, who’s working with Poirot on the case. She explains that the debt has piled up so high that she’s needed to approach moneylenders. They don’t feature greatly in the story, but they do serve as a motive in this case. And you thought I was going to mention Death in the Clouds, didn’t you, Christie fans?
Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack features Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. It’s the late 1970s, a very dangerous time to live and work in Argentina. Lescano does his best, though. One day, he gets a call about two dead bodies that were found on a riverbank. When he arrives at the scene, though, there are three bodies. Two of them bear the hallmarks of an army ‘hit,’ and Lescano knows better than to question them. But the other one is different. It turns out that this is the body of Elías Biterman, a successful pawnbroker and moneylender. Lescano doesn’t feel that he can ‘rubber stamp’ this murder, so he starts asking questions. It turns out that Biterman’s murderer is being well-protected by people in very high places, so the investigation will be extremely dangerous for Lescano. In fact, he faces quite a lot of pressure to just let the investigation go. After all, Biterman is ‘just another Jew.’ Still, Lescano doesn’t feel that’s doing his job, so he persists. He finds out that it can be very dangerous to get mixed up in the affairs of those in power.
Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood introduces Catherine Berlin, an investigator for the UK’s Financial Services Authority. As such, she’s looking into the case of a loan shark named Archie Doyle. Berlin is also a registered heroin addict who gets daily pharmaceutical doses of the drug. Her superiors have closed the Doyle case, but Berlin is sure there’s more to it, and she wants to bring Doyle down if possible. To do that, she’s been working with an informant who calls herself Juliet Bravo. When Juliet turns up dead, and her body found in London’s Limehouse Basis, Berlin knows this case is far more than just a matter of stopping a loan shark. Matters get even worse when her doctor – one of the few who is licensed to supply medicinal heroin – is also murdered. Now, Berlin herself becomes a suspect in both killings, so that even her colleagues don’t support her search for the truth in the Doyle case. She’s going to have to act fast if she’s going to stay out of jail – or worse.
Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor is the story of Henri Koskinen, an actuary who doesn’t really fit in to the culture of the company where he works. After he’s fired, he needs to start over. To his surprise, he learns that he has inherited his brother Juhani’s amusement park, YouMeFun. He decides to run the park, which for him means he’ll start by looking into the company’s finances. He soon learns that there are gaps and unanswered questions about the money, and that’s made even clearer when loan sharks descend on the place, demanding that Henri pay Juhani’s debts. Henri decides to come up with a scheme that will beat the loan sharks at their own game, so he can stay one step ahead of them – at least for a time…
Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels will know that Rebus’ longtime adversary is Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. Among his other ‘business enterprises,’ Cafferty is a moneylender who has inventive ways of encouraging people to pay their debts. As time goes on and Edinburgh changes, both Rebus and Cafferty see that crime is changing, too. It’s now often a matter of online scams, payday lending, and other usurious loans, rather than the street fights and thuggery that it used to be. Among other things, that series is an interesting exploration of how moneylending customs have changed as time has gone on.
The fact is, though, that moneylending is still with us. Sometimes it’s legal (if not exactly ethical); sometimes it’s not. Either way, it’s sometimes people’s only viable option when bank loans are not feasible, and people are financially desperate. So, it makes sense that we’d see moneylending in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s The Temple.
10 thoughts on “Borrow Cash on the Finest Terms*”
Oh, very interesting Margot. Money is the great motivator, isn’t it, and the lack of it or any kind of debt makes for a wonderful motive… ;D
Thanks, KBR. Money is definitely a powerful motivator, and the desperation people feel when they have no money, or have debt, adds to that motivation. And, yes, it can make for a really effective motive! 🙂
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Margot, trust you to come up with some unusual examples. Such an interesting post.
Thank you very much, Neeru. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!
Haha, I did indeed think you were going to mention Death in the Clouds! I’ll add Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs Westaway. Young Harriet Westaway is in debt to loan sharks whose threats are becoming increasingly aggressive, so when she gets a letter telling her she has inherited a substantial bequest from her Cornish grandmother, it seems like the answer to a prayer, even though she knows the woman wasn’t her grandmother and the whole thing is a mistake! But she decides to go to Cornwall anyway since it’ll get her away from the sharks for a while, if nothing else. And there, in a delightfully spooky old Gothic house, she meets a bunch of people who think she’s the daughter of a long-lost relative…
Ooh, that Ruth Ware does sound good, FictionFan! I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Ware’s writing (haven’t, I admit, read that one just yet), and the Cornwall/spooky house setting sounds right for the story. You do have to wonder what’s behind those unexpected and unusual bequests, don’t you. In fact, one of these times, I might even do a post on that…
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I can’t, offhand, think of any money lenders in the crime books I’ve read but it must be awful to be in that position and be so desperate you have to go to one. I have picked up a recommendation too, from FictionFan… The Death of Mrs. Westaway, set in my home county and one I had not heard of.
FictionFan has very good recommendations, Cath, in my opinion. So if you get the chance to read The Death of Mrs. Westaway, I hope you enjoy it. I agree with you, too, about the desperation people feel when they go to moneylenders. My guess is, people don’t do that by choice.
Margot: Your examples actually caused me to think of the fine series by Emma Lathen featuring New York banker, John Putnam Thatcher. He is at the opposite end of the lending spectrum being a man of great integrity who wants to see people and business succeed despite the interferences of murder. I think there is room in 21st Century crime fiction for an ethical banker sleuth.
Oh, there definitely is room for an ethical banker sleuth, Bill. And I’m grateful that you brought up Thatcher. He is a well-drawn character who does, as you say, have integrity. I can think of a few instances, too, where he helps a business and the people who run it to succeed even after murder. I’ve not read that series lately; I ought to get back to it.