Wednesday 19 August 2009

Accountants and Crime

Why don’t accountants feature more often in crime fiction? For every accountant who turns up in a mystery, there must be a hundred lawyers, and yet you would think that accountants are very well placed to indulge in criminal activity. Perhaps they are just better at getting away with it?

My question was prompted by the fact that one of the two narrators in Barbara Vine’s The Birthday Present, which I reviewed the other day, is an accountant. It has to be said that Vine, aka Ruth Rendell showed no interest in her character’s work, and portrayed him as a pretty dull dog. But it doesn’t have to be so. Some of my very best friends are accountants, and in person they are as varied a bunch as any other group One of the accountants I used to work with played drums in band that later became The Beatles.

Emma Lathen (actually, the pen-name concealed the identities of two female writers) wrote about a banker-sleuth called Thatcher, and one of her novels (a pretty good one) was called Accounting for Murder, but accountant-authors who write crime have always been thin on the ground. Perhaps one of the reasons why lawyers crop up so much more often in the genre is that so many crime novels are written by people who are either lawyers or have had legal training (it’s a long list that even includes such luminaries of long ago as Wilkie Collins.)

Richard Henry Sampson, who wrote as Richard Hull, is probably my favourite accountant-author; he emerged during the Golden Age, but his books were by no means conventional puzzles. His ironic mysteries weren’t uniformly successful, but almost all contain an interesting idea or two, and they deserve to be better known.

The recent film Deception, which I talked about a few weeks ago, is a contemporary examination of the criminal potential of accountancy, and a pretty good one. But I’m sure there’s scope for plenty of other interesting accountancy-linked mystery fiction. In the meantime, are there any really enjoyable examples I’ve missed?


Philip Amos said...

American crime novelist David Dodge, himself a CPA, wrote a series of novels featuring accountant/detective 'Whit' Whitney. I read the first, Death and Taxes (1941), in which Whitney investigates the murder of his accounting partner. Very good in a 'Thin Man' sort of way, but more lore about finances and taxes than I wanted to know, so I didn't return to the series. This is, as I indicate, a murder mystery, but the investigation of purely financial crime may not lend itself well to the genre, especially from the viewpoint of readers who relish the mystery. Motive, for one thing, is likely to be rather obvious from the start.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

There's definitely a boring-accountant stereotype out there. I know some interesting ones, too, so it's a typecasting that needs to be jettisoned, I think. I can't think of any good accountant're making a good list, though.

Mystery Writing is Murder

cfr said...

Martin, in respect of anti-money laundering regs, the following article has some interesting stats on SARs for 2007:
Solicitors are not big on suspicions and accountants even worse, it seems. Or is it a lack of eagerness? There are quite a few theories.

Personally, I think accountants don't feature much because the general public don't find the topic interesting and accountants are often equated with "boring". That could change if someone made a comedy programme about them incorporating a corporate scandal along the lines of Enron, WorldCom etc. And in that case, let's not forget that that scandal saw the downfall of a large accountancy & consultancy practice: Arthur Andersen.

Maxine Clarke said...

I loved those "Emma Lathen" novels - read them all. There was a big gap, then they wrote another, then one of them died. Great books, I thought.

I love reading about professionals as protags of novels - I have just finished Stephen White's latest thriller and love all the little details of what it is like to be a psychologist (same in the very early Jonathan Kellerman, before he went off). I also love legal thrillers, eg yours ;-) and Philip Margolin. If I knew of good books featuring accountants, I'd read them! (I have got this Vine somewhere, so perhaps will read that although from what you say she does not go into details).

Asa Larsson is about the nearest I can think of - her protag, Rebeka, is a sort of financial lawyer (not quite sure of the exact term). Her profession features quite a bit in the 3 novels so far (Sun Storm, The Savage Altar and The Black Path) but not excessively - along the lines of financial investigations into a buisnessman (in the case of The Black Path) or a local church (the first two books). Unfortunately I did not learn much about how to get rich but I did enjoy the books.

NQ said...

I'm an accountant who writes crime and although it's certainly good for background and 'following the money', it's not something i've actively thought to use in my writing. Maybe i'm missing a trick...

vegetableduck said...

I read Accounting for Murder fifteen years ago but don't recall much about (I guess not a good sign!), but I do recall I found it pretty enjoyable. I went through a Lathen phase in the 1990s where I read a lot of their books. Business organization has always interested me, and Lathen made a specialty of it.

John Rhode's Death at Breakfast has an accountant murder victim as I recall.

David Cranmer said...

There are so many other professions that could figure prominently into a plot. I like the accountant idea.

Martin Edwards said...

Good points, Philip. I didn't know Dodge was an accountant.

Rhian, I must admit I find the money laundering rules tedious to comply with, though I appreciate their purpose. But they don't seem targeted at the 'real' danger areas - more of a blunt instrument.
Thanks for the link.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, I long ago concluded that the first step to becoming rich is to qualify as an accountant! I realise it doesn't always work out, but it's not a bad plan.
I do think that accountancy coudl be a good basis for a crime series, and I bet it will happen one of these days. Then again, there haven't really been many good courtroom drama series set in England. Reg Hill keeps encouraging me to have a go, but I really don't know much about courtrooms....

Martin Edwards said...

Good to hear from you NQ, and best of luck with the writing.

Maxine Clarke said...

That would be great if you would turn your hand to that, Martin - I think that it is correct that there aren't any courtroom crime books in the UK that spring to mind though there seem to be plenty in the US. I think it was a popular genre, though? Francis Durbridge? or is memory failing me?

I do like your Harry Devlin (solicitor) series though and for my money you could just continue with that, though not at the expense of the Lake District novels of course! (I am eagerly awaiting the next installment, and I should mention that Prof Petrona very much enjoyed The Coffin Trail which he read on holiday - he enjoyed the local aspects, as he hails from those parts, but mainly he thought it was a very clever mystery. And he isn't particularly a crime fan though he likes Le Carre.

Douglas Kennedy's first two novels were jolly good (The Job in particular), but I think he is also US. They were more advertising than accountancy, though, but the workplace atmosphere and details stick in the mind. The author since turned his hand to a more "literary" output.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Maxine, and my thanks also to Prof Petrona!
I haven't read Kennedy, though I've been told he's a good writer.
More news about The Serpent Pool soon.

Anonymous said...

Possibly of use in a wider might be
the Peter Schiff video, three news
shows in 06 / 07, in which some of
some the financial experts are
awfully wrong in their predictions
and recommendations. It's pretty
popular for good reason.

and a follow up video, Bill Maher
asking Art Laffer later about the
(wrong) predictions, forecasts,
one gets to know from the comedy
show and Art Laffer himself that
it's better to take such forecasts
too serious. That's the surprise,
Basically, that's stuff for lots
of financial crimes, ... of course
affecting accounting.