Admit it—you’ve thought about it. If you came across a stash of money out of the blue, a huge pile of cash dropped from nowhere into your lap, you’d be tempted to keep it, wouldn’t you?
If you answered. “Yes, I’ve thought about it,” you’d be a normal human being. If you answered, “I’d totally keep it; all my problems would be solved,” you’ve obviously never read a crime novel about finding a bag of money. Finding a wad of cash never works out well.
It’s a classic plot. Universally understood, it’s a fantasy of quick riches like playing the lottery, and the characters are almost always normal everyday people like you and me. Maybe that’s why it’s been used time and again.
Take the granddaddy: A Simple Plan by Scott Smith. Perhaps more famous now for the excellent movie adaptation, the novel is a masterpiece of escalating tension and “what would I do?” moments.
In this case the money is a duffle bag of cash—$4 million worth—found in a crashed airplane in a wintry nowheresville by Hank, his brother Jacob and their shiftless friend Lou. Taking the money seems too easy. And it is. The great thing about what Smith does (in his debut novel by the way) is create an entirely realistic version of what might happen to unravel a husband and wife, two brothers, and a greedy hanger-on when that much money is involved. Wouldn’t you know, money changes everything.
Things spiral downward ever so slowly using a plot device that unifies these novels beyond the whole cash-out-of-nowhere plot: Each wrong turn is small at first. The person greedily hanging on to the money can trick themselves into thinking it’s no big deal. It’s only when the accumulation of small crimes begins to form a leaning tower that they realize everyone and everything is about to be crushed underneath.
For Hank in A Simple Plan, that tower crushes everything around him and corrupts him in ways he never thought possible. And throughout it all, he convinces himself he can get away with it, like everyone in these books. Like you or me, probably.
Take Good People by Marcus Sakey. As the title implies, Tom and Anna are decent, normal people just trying to make their way in life. The money in this case comes from a former tenant in a property they rent out and Sakey tugs at our sympathy strings by giving Tom and Anna a hell of a motivation for taking the cash. They need some extra money to afford infertility treatments. All they want is a baby, and if taking a few lost dollars off some really bad men can make that happen, well then where’s the crime in that?
Trouble is, even if the reader’s sympathies are with the main characters, the people who the money belongs to are rarely sympathetic. And they own guns.
One of the strokes of brilliance in A Simple Plan is the way the characters unravel without even the threat of the owners of the money coming to call. It’s all an internal rift that the money makes wider. In Good People, the owners want their money back—and badly.
Like Smith, Sakey sets up his protagonist with a series of small shovelfuls of dirt before he realizes how deep he has dug himself. By the time men with guns are at his door, it’s too late to do much about it. What follows then is page-turning to say the least as Tom digs faster and more frantically to find a way out of his hole.
A more recent entry into the found money subgenre is The Cold Kiss by John Rector. Again, the people we feel for, Nate and Sara, are poor kids just trying to do their best. No one in these books ever thinks they are stealing the money. Throw out the plot of one of these stories at your next dinner party and you’ll start a lively debate on whether or not these people are committing a crime at all.
Rector ratchets up the paranoia pretty fast and then adds to it by trapping Nate and Sara in a blizzard-bound motel and unleashing a steady stream of what-could-get-worse scenarios for them to untangle in order for them to keep the money they have grown so quickly attached to.
That’s another thing these books all have in common. The people who take the money very quickly start to regard it as theirs. Oh, sure, the idea of turning it over to the cops is always discussed, and always dismissed. Mostly because there is always just one more minor hurdle to jump before everything is free and clear . . . until the next hurdle crops up, taller and more dangerous.
All three of these books are tense, high wire acts of writing. Even though they share similar plot points, each one is unique and each are among my favorites. And if you can’t get enough even after these books, go and see Shallow Grave. As great as A Simple Plan is as a movie, Shallow Grave is an even more twisted slide downward.
So read these books and you’ll never even look the same way at a quarter you find on the sidewalk. You’ll learn very quickly that no matter how often you tell yourself you’re going to get away with it, nothing is ever that simple.
Eric Beetner is the author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision (Book #3 in the Fight Card series) and co-author with JB Kohl of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. His award-winning short fiction has appeared in Pulp Ink, D*cked, Off The Record, Grimm Tales, Discount Noir, Needle, Murder In The Wind and the upcoming Million Writers Award: best new online voices. For more and links to free stories visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com