It would be hard to read a lot of crime fiction without coming across at least one of them. I’m talking about the character of the wealthy and successful business executive. Some of these characters are portrayed as malicious, vindictive, and greedy. Others are depicted in a much more sympathetic way. It may be because of the author’s views of wealth and the wealthy, or it may be because of how the wealth was acquired. Other factors are no doubt involved, too. But any way you think about it, the rich magnate can be an interesting character. Here are just a few examples.
In Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, we meet Mark Frettlby, a wealthy and successful Melbourne speculator. He came to Australia with very little money, but he’s been both fortunate and wise, so he’s done very well for himself. His daughter Margaret ‘Madge’ is very much in love with Brian Fitzgerald, and the feeling is definitely mutual. Everything changes when Fitzgerald is accused of murdering Oliver Whyte. Fitzgerald maintains his innocence, but won’t give an alibi, as he says it would compromise someone. Police detective Samuel Gorby investigates the case, and finally persuades Fitzgerald to tell the truth. When he does, Gorby follows the leads and discovers who the real killer is. Throughout the novel, Mark Frettlby is portrayed as a sympathetic character. He supports Madge’s choice of Fitzgerald, and believes in his innocence, and despite his wealth, he’s neither heartless nor arrogant. One thing to point out here is that Frettlby is what’s been called a ‘self-made’ man. So he hasn’t been shaped by wealth from birth.
We don’t know specifically where Agatha Christie’s Rufus Van Aldin got all his money, although he seems to have earned it. But in The Mystery of the Blue Train, we learn that he is both rich and powerful, and has an only daughter, Ruth. He dotes on Ruth, who is married to Derek Kettering (of whom Van Aldin disapproves). One day, he gives Ruth a necklace that holds a very valuable ruby, ‘Heart of Fire.’ Ruth is murdered during a train trip on the famous Blue Train, and Van Aldin is devastated. He knows the police are working to solve the case, but he hires Hercule Poirot to represent his interests and see if he can find out the truth. At first, it looks as though Ruth was murdered for the ruby, which is now missing from her things. But there are other possibilities, and Poiort works with the French police to investigate them. Throughout the novel, Van Aldin is portrayed as sympathetic, if a bit overprotective. His grief is genuine, and his wish to take care of his daughter is realistic. Christie wrote other interesting business magnate characters, too didn’t she, fans of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe?
You might say a similar thing about Cale Hanniford, whom we meet in Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Father. He’s a successful New York City-based magnate who’s recently learned that his daughter Wendy was murdered. The police have in custody the young man they think is responsible: Wendy’s former roommate Richard Vanderpoel. But Hanniford wants to know more. How did Wendy die? What was her life like, and what did she do? He’s been estranged from Wendy for a time and doesn’t know much about her life. That’s why he hires Matthew Scudder, former police detective who now does what he calls ‘favors for friends.’ Scudder agrees to find out what he can and begins to follow the thread of Wendy’s life. And what he finds changes a lot about the case. Hanniford isn’t portrayed in a completely sympathetic way. But he is shown to be honest about his own faults and failings, and humble enough to let Scudder decide how to pursue the case.
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy introduces readers to the wealthy Vanger family, Swedish industrialists who’ve had power for several decades. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist gets to know the family when Henrik Vanger, retired CEO of Vanger Corporation, hires him to solve a mystery. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s great-niece Harriet went missing. She’s always been presumed to be dead, but Vanger has evidence that she may well be alive. As Blomkvist starts digging for the truth, we learn about the family, and it’s not at all a sympathetic portrayal. In fact, the only Vanger who is depicted with any sympathy is Henrik Vanger. That might be, at least in part, because of Larsson’s political and economic views.
Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas is the story of the Wiser family, headed by Charity Wiser. The family has made a fortune in the meat business, and Charity Wiser is both an heiress and the current head of the family company. Through her granddaughter, Charity contacts Saskatoon PI Russell Quant, claiming that someone in her family is trying to murder her. She hires Quant to ‘vet’ her family and find out which one of them is the would-be killer. Quant joins the family on a cruise aboard the Wiser family luxury yacht and gets to know the different members of the family. He’s certainly not overly impressed with them, and that includes his employer. It turns out that Charity Wiser has a habit of treating her family badly and putting them in situations she knows they’ll hate – just keep them ‘in line.’ She’s certainly not portrayed as a magnanimous, compassionate person, and the family dynamics are interesting to see on that score.
Wealthy business executives are likely as varied as any other group of people. Some are generous and compassionate, and some…are not. That’s true in real life, and it certainly is in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sandra Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle, made famous by her husband Harry.
10 thoughts on “But There Were Planes to Catch and Bills to Pay*”
Ah, where would GA crime (or indeed any kind of crime!) be without those mean moguls – they make such perfect murder victims!!!
I quite agree, KBR! They do make great murder victims, and it really is interesting to find out what makes them tick. Perhaps it’s typecasting, but the mean mogul can be a great addition to a story, I think!
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The first thing I thought of when I read your post, Margot, was ‘Christmas’. I remembered two Christmas books with the theme of the wealthy, successful patriarch type character and those were, Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith and The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay. But Agatha Christie had fun with the trope too.
She did indeed, Cath. I thought of several Christie examples; it was hard to choose! And thanks for mentioning Portrait of a Murderer. That was a fine story and it’s a good example. It actually made me think of Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring. That one features a wealthy Philadelphia magnate and his dysfunctional family. It’s a good series that I can recommend.
Enjoyed your post. John Putnam Thatcher, the sleuth in the series by Emma Lathen, is my favourite executive in crime fiction. A good ethical man personally and in business.
Now, that, Bill, is an excellent example of an executive who doesn’t fit the ‘mean mogul’ stereotype. He is, as you say, ethical, and he has integrity. I like him for that. He’s smart, too, and doesn’t use his clout for power. Thank you for the reminder.
I always like the idea of writing against type, so maybe I’ll try a rich mogul with a heart of gold! Actually when I think about it, both the characters of Anthony and Sereena in the Quant series were quite well-heeled and they were likeable. I wonder if maybe the important part is how a character defines themselves in regards to their wealth and then uses it for good or bad or not at all.
Thanks, Anthony, for your insights on your characters. I agree with you about both Anthony and Sereena. They are wealthy, but they are sympathetic characters, and Russell has solid relationships with them. Of course, that’s not true of all really wealthy people. As you say, perhaps a big part of it is how the character sees that wealth, and what the character sees as life’s priorities. There’s a lot to think about there, for which thanks.
It’s interesting that the business magnate is so often shown as the bullying patriarch whom his children fear and hate and he’s often estranged from them, whereas men who inherited their wealth along with a title and a country estate are often shown as kindly, if rather bumbling, fathers, in British crime fiction anyway. It must be one of those weird class things we have – somehow the process of getting rich can only be done by the greedy and unscrupulous, whereas those with good “blood” can be rich without it corrupting them. Or something!
I’ve thought of that, too, FictionFan! There is a difference in that perception, isn’t there? You could very well be right about the fact that it’s a class thing. And what’s really interesting is that industry (as in effort) is supposed to be highly prized. So if you earn something through your own efforts, that’s praiseworthy. And yet, successful business magnates are, as you say, very often portrayed negatively unless they have ‘blue blood.’ Funny thing, I think…
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