There’s One Law For the Rich, One For the Poor*

It’s no secret that money, social status, celebrity, or whatever gets one power in a given culture, also usually gives one a tremendous advantage in the justice system. For instance, money lets you hire the best attorneys there are. And there’s sometimes quite a lot of hesitation before prosecuting someone in a high, powerful position.

Crime fiction reflects the way this works, as you might imagine. And that can make for an interesting layer in a story. It can also add tension. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In several of Agatha Christie’s novels, rich and powerful people are mixed up in murders. It certainly happens in Murder on the Orient Express, when American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed during a three-day train journey. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works with M. Bouc, who’s a company director for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, that owns the train. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car, and several of them are in the highest social circles. For example, one such passenger is Princess Natalia Dragomiroff. From the very beginning of the novel, it’s obvious that she moves in the top international circles and is accustomed to deference. She’s in such an unassailable social position that M. Bouc even hesitates to ask her to come to him and Poirot to answer questions. Here’s what he says to the conductor about it:

‘‘Tell he we can wait on her in her compartment if she does not wish to put herself to the trouble of coming here.’’

Princess Dragomiroff decides to go to the dining car, where the interviews are being conducted. And she proves a very formidable personality. As you can guess, the second-class passengers are not offered the option of ‘being waited on’ in their compartments…

Anne Perry’s Face of a Stranger concerns the murder of Joscelin Grey, a ‘blueblood’ who is found dead in his home. Inspector William Monk, and his assistant, John Evan, investigate the death. As you might expect, one of their avenues of exploration is the victim’s family. But looking at that angle of the case isn’t going to be easy. This is Victorian London, and the Grey family is prominent and powerful, with impeccable social credentials. There are different rules, if you will, for dealing with these people, and that’s made clear to Monk by his boss. And, more than once, various family members remind him that he is a ‘mere’ policeman, and they don’t really need to talk to him at all (i.e. ‘A family like ours could have had nothing to do with such a sordid matter. Do your job and go after the riffraff who did it!’). It takes time, and Monk steps on a few toes, as the saying goes, but he does get some valuable information from some of the family members.

Bill Pronzini’s The Snatch features wealthy Louis Martinetti and his wife, Karyn. When their son, Gary, is kidnapped, Marinetti contacts San Francisco PI Nameless (he is named later in the series, but not here). At first, Nameless thinks Martinetti wants him to find the boy, and he urges his new client to work with the police. But that’s not what Martinetti wants. He wants Nameless to take the money to the drop site identified by Gary’s kidnappers. Then, he, tells Nameless, he’ll be informed where the boy is. Nameless agrees to do the job and goes to the appropriate place at the set time. But when he does, everything goes wrong all at once. Now, the case takes a whole new direction, and Nameless will have to decide what to do. Throughout this novel, we see how there’s a different set of rules for those who are wealthy and powerful. Nameless sees it, too, and it’s not to his liking. Readers who enjoy Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer stories, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, will be familiar with this theme.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. His firm usually concerns itself with ‘vetting’ potential spouses for families who want to arrange the best marriages for their children and grandchildren. But one day, he gets a very different sort of case. Wealthy and privileged lawyer Ajay Kasliwal has been accused of raping and killing a household servant, Mary Murmu. He claims that he’s innocent, but it can’t be denied that Mary went missing, and hasn’t been found. Kasliwal asks Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. Puri agrees and starts asking questions. He soon finds that the Kasliwals are the sort of family that can do what they want, send their children to the best schools, and live in upmarket places. They’re used to privilege. And that just adds to Puri’s trouble. The police are determined to show that they are not the tools of the rich and powerful, and that no-one is above the law. So, they arrest Kasliwal and imprison him. And they are completely unwilling to work with Puri to find out the truth. In the end, he and his team do find out what happened to Mary. And it’s interesting to see how those ‘two sets of rules – one for the rich and one for the rest of us’ works in this novel.

We also see that in Kalpana Swaminatham’s Greenlight. In that novel, several children from a small Mumbai slum called Kandewadi disappear and are later murdered. At first, not much attention is paid to the killings. But finally, there’s enough public outcry that the police assign Inspector Savio to the case. He consults regularly with retired police detective Lalli, and she works with him on these murders. One of the elements in the story is the gulf between the rich and powerful, and the poor. Those with money and power are convinced that they can do as they wish, at any time. And more than once, we see how they react when anyone questions them.

Whether we like it or not, there’s an argument that wealthy, powerful people live by one set of standards, and there’s another set for the rest of us. Certainly, there are examples of that in real life. And there are in crime fiction, too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ian Axel, Chad Vaccarino and Teddy Geiger’s Ordinary Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Bill Pronzini, Kalpana Swaminathan, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Tarquin Hall

16 responses to “There’s One Law For the Rich, One For the Poor*

  1. So sad yet so true. So often the “nothings” of the lower classes pay dearly while the seemingly “untouchables” skate by. Lady Justice should remove her blindfold and take a long hard look at the flawed system we have.

    • You have a point, Michael, that those with money and power often have a very different experience in courts to those who have neither. It would nice if that weren’t the case.

  2. Margot, you’ve probably heard this before, but I’m amazed that you always find such an apt song title for every post. Does it take you long to find them? Do you find the title then write the post, or vice versa? What if you write a post and can’t find a song title—or does this never happen?

  3. Margot: John Grisham has addressed wealth and privilege in the American judicial system in several books. The most striking may be The Appeal where the losing company in a major court action undertakes a campaign to elect a judge to the State Supreme Court who would be the deciding vote in favour of reversing the trial decision. The book was based on an actual West Virginia case where a coal company worked to elect a judge to the State Court of Appeals who they expected would vote to allow its appeal of a 50 million dollar judgment. They were right. The United States Supreme Court subsequently allowed an appeal saying the newly elected judge should have recused himself. Alas, the West Virginia Court of Appeals, even without that elected judge, on re-hearing reversed again the trial decision.

    • Thanks, Bill, for reminding me of The Appeal. It’s an excellent example of the way money and power can impact the way the justice system works (or doesn’t). And it’s interesting to know the facts of the case on which it was based. And you’re right about Grisham, of course. He often does address the issues of wealth, class, and justice in his novels.

  4. Col

    The Snatch was my first taste of Pronzini and a great introduction for me to his work and Nameless.

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on how the law differs for the rich and poor in crime fiction.

  6. Keishon

    I think we got a glimpse of what powerful people can use to silence others and find their form of justice earlier this year. I can’t help but think of the movie, Reversal of Fortune and how the rich find their own justice and trample on the rights of others without means but in this situation the person was able to fight back with a reversal of the verdict.

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