Good News for Rich Uncles and Orphaned Heiresses.

admin Avatar

You may remember that I’ve been blitzing my way through murder mysteries this winter. As it turns out, one Agatha Christie mystery is fun, two are interesting, but once you get past three or four, they start to raise real questions about the economic incentives of the early 20th century.

If Jane Austen made a pretty good case that an economic system reliant on inherited wealth is a bad idea because it might pressure your brilliant daughter to marry her idiotic cousin, Agatha Christie added the compelling argument that the idiotic cousin is probably going to murder you next time you invite him to visit for a long weekend.

Over the last month or so I’ve read The ABC murders, The Murder on the Links, all of the “Poirot Investigates” stories, Death on the Nile, as well as Evil Under the Sun and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd back in early December. (There may have been some others as well? After a point they all begin to blur together.)

And with surprising regularity, the culprits’ elaborate schemes of murder and misdirection are specifically designed to obtain an inheritance.

Perhaps they marry heiresses and bump them off to fund a later marriage with their impoverished true love, or kill a childless brother or uncle before he has a chance to remarry and have another heir. Occasionally they invent baroque curses to explain the deaths of entire male lines; what looks like the wrath of a vengeful demigod turns out to be a dim cousin with mounting debts and too much time on his hands.

Our economy today is far from perfect, of course. But while I know taxes and inheritance laws were not reformed in order to alter the incentives of the slaughter-inclined, it is striking to me that today’s equivalent of the upper middle classes and landed gentry probably don’t have a murder-based path to wealth: by the time you’ve paid off debts and estate taxes, you’d be lucky if your dastardly crimes gave you enough for a down payment on an apartment in a major city.

(I am aware, obviously, that Christie’s books were fiction, not anthropological studies of the socio-economic structures of the early 20th century. But my point is that the plots wouldn’t even be plausible today, not that this was actually a typical economic strategy in the past.)

Isn’t it nice that nowadays, amoral, penniless 20-somethings can now channel any murderous instincts into, say, private equity jobs rather than finding an heiress to marry and then murder on an exotic means of transport? I never expected to feel thankful that penniless younger brothers with a passion for exploring the “Far East” can now just become slightly problematic travel influencers rather than engaging in multicity murder sprees, or that charming young ladies of modest means can sell real estate rather than committing murder and pinning it on a romantic rival. Fiction truly opens one’s mind to new perspectives on the world.

MJ Keyser, a reader in Portland, Ore., recommends “The Age of Insecurity” by Astra Taylor:

Your newsletter on the design and complexities of infrastructure, and how when they falter it brings on uncertainty, brought to mind Astra Taylor’s “The Age of Insecurity.”

Taylor underscores how insecurity brought on by capitalism and individualism is driving our modern experiences and further division. In essence, insecurity is the psychological impact of the uncertainty that arises when systems don’t always work as expected or makes fulfilling essential needs harder (or near impossible).

Thank you to everyone who wrote in to tell me about what you’re reading. Please keep the submissions coming!

I want to hear about things you have read (or watched or listened to) that you recommend to other Interpreter readers. I’m especially interested in hearing about things that have changed your mind or given you a new perspective on world events.

If you’d like to participate, you can fill out this form. I may publish your response in a future newsletter.

Author Profile

John Doe

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam.


There’s no content to show here yet.