Wills in Crime Fiction

Ever since the Victorian age, wills have played an important part in mystery fiction. The technical legal rules on wills and settlements have proved a fertile source of plot ideas, while the prospect of inheritance is a timeless motive for murder. Many short stories turn upon a single point of law, such as “Where There’s A Will ” by Cyril Hare (highlighting a limitation of the general rule that marriage invalidates a will) and “Xinia Florata” by Michael Gilbert, which is based on the principle that a will which observes the legal requirements may take any form. Ingenious use of the will as a plot device was made by many Golden Age writers, including Agatha Christie, whose “Motive v. Opportunity” concerns a bequest written in disappearing ink and Dorothy L. Sayers, whose “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will” offers crossword puzzle clues to a fortune. In novels, the terms of a will often provide the inspiration for a complex puzzle; examples can be found in books as diverse as The Case Of The 16 Beans (1944; The 16 Beans) by Harry Stephen Keeler, Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927; The Dawson Pedigree) and the Detection Club’s The Floating Admiral (1951), which boasts an appendix containing a counsel’s opinion on the legal implications of the Fitzgerald will.

Nineteenth century authors were quick to see how the law on wills and inheritance could provide the framework for an elaborate mystery. Wilkie Collins, who had trained as a barrister, was fascinated by the way in which the law might be exploited for criminal gain. A key point in The Woman in White (1860) is that if Laura Fairlie were to die childless before her husband, he would inherit ?20,000, a sum which she could not give to any other beneficiary in a will. In “Mr. Bovey’s Unexpected Will” by L. T Meade and Robert Eustace, inheritance under a miser’s will depended on the claimant’s body weight, while Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Three Garridebs” concerns supposedly “the queerest will that has ever been filed in the State of Kansas”. Later writers showed even more ingenuity; for example, in The Eye of Osiris (1911; The Vanishing Man), R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke solved with the aid of X rays a puzzle based upon a will which contained curious provisions about where the testator’s body should be buried. The very title of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934: The Boomerang Clue) by Christie is an allusion to the witnessing of a rich man’s will. Ellery Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) involves the search for a missing will, while Keeler made frequent and inventive (sometimes bizarre) use of wills as a means of developing his spider’s web plots in novels such as The Spectacles Of Mr. Cagliostro (1929; The Blue Spectacles).

In the past half century, writers working within the tradition of the classic whodunit have continued to explore the possibilities of wills. They include American authors such as Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout and the less well known Michael A. Kahn, in whose The Canaan Legacy (1988) a will establishes a fund to maintain the grave of a pet which the testator never owned. Yet many of the best books about wills have been set in England; Hare wrote several, including That Yew Tree’s Shade (1954; Death Walks the Woods), in which Francis Pettigrew’s recollection of a dispute over Dr. Crippen’s estate furnishes a crucial clue to the puzzle. The opportunity that a solicitor may have to forge a will forms the basis of Elizabeth Lemarchand’s Buried In The Past (1974) and the plot elements of Catherine Aird’s A Going Concern (1993) include a will, a codicil, a precatory trust and the testator’s request for a police presence at her funeral. Symons’ The Belting Inheritance (1965) is unusual in that the terms of the vital bequest are only revealed at the end of the book. Such novels may be regarded as ‘cosies’, but Reginald Hill’s Child’s Play (1987), in which an eccentric old woman leaves a fortune to be split between an animal rights organisation, a services benevolent fund and a fascist front, has a harder edge. My own novel The Devil in Disguise (1997) sees Harry Devlin hired by the Kavanaugh Trust to contest the will of a former benefactor, an appointment rapidly followed by the sudden and mysterious death of the chairman of the Trust.

Short stories centring upon wills have come from many of the most prominent practitioners of the classic whodunit. In P.D. James’ “Great Aunt Allie’s Fly Papers”, for example, a legatee’s conscience prompts Adam Dalgleish to look into an old case, while Sara Caudwell’s “An Acquaintance With Mr. Collins” makes telling reference to one of the inaugurators of this branch of mystery fiction, the eponymous Wilkie.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing)