Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kingship and inheritance

Elizabeth Zelvin

Literature has often used as a central theme the right to property and position by virtue of birth. Kingship is one of Shakespeare’s primary topics. Who’s the rightful heir? Who’s a usurper? How far will someone go to be the king? These were burning questions in Shakespeare’s day, when society was hierarchical and class immutable. Also, the Queen was Shakespeare’s boss. The history plays were propaganda for the Tudors. But the tragedies too—King Lear, Hamlet—and even some of the comedies—address the issues of legitimacy and power.

Golden Age mysteries and those of the Fifties and Sixties still assumed that the reader would root for the rightful heir, or at least be against the usurper. Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree and Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar were organized around this premise. Both writers stacked the deck by making their usurpers bad guys who would kill to get what they wanted. But in each case, I find myself asking this: If the antagonist weren’t a homicidal villain, why would it be so bad for him to get the property?

While I still revel in the glory of Shakespeare’s language, I have become increasingly unsympathetic to this premise in his work in the past couple of decades. In the world I live in, I can’t work up any passion for someone’s right to power and privilege simply because of whom that person’s parents were. Is the defense of kingship a noble cause that moves anyone to passion nowadays?

Sure, some of Shakespeare’s themes are still universal. In King Lear, an aging man who hopes his daughters will care for him gives away his power prematurely and lives to regret it. We can relate because today we have to worry about whether our children will put us in a nursing home—and wonder if we can risk giving them power of attorney when we can’t handle our finances any more.

Traditional fantasy fiction is usually set in imaginary preindustrial kingdoms. (Urban fantasy, the genre that Charlaine Harris writes the Sookie Stackhouse books in, is another story.) Heroes and sympathetic characters risk their lives to protect the rightful heir, even when that heir is a baby. It’s easy for the author to stack the deck by making the usurper or conqueror willing to kill the baby to seize and retain power. Nobody likes a baby killer. But what has the baby done to deserve this extreme loyalty, besides being born to the right parents? Can you imagine what would happen to America if the majority decided that a baby was the rightful president? Yet a new generation of kids is being introduced to the notion of kingship through the movies, currently booming, based on fantasy novels.

Speaking of inheritance, remember that wonderful device, the tontine—where as multiple heirs died off, there was more for the survivors, until the last remaining heir scooped the pot? That fueled a lot of 20th century mystery plots. Even more revolve around who gets the money.But if the false claimant were not a villain, would we really be at all indignant if he managed to get the money? Especially if the false claimant has been on the ground, doing all the work? Isn’t it kind of unfair for the true claimant to show up out of the blue and scoop the pot? Brat Farrar actually is a false claimant, though he’s such a great fit for the family he originally plans to con that we want him to prevail, and of course he does.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Natural Death, an ailing old lady is killed in order for the villain to inherit before a new inheritance law becomes effective. Lord Peter Wimsey points out, “She didn’t want to die. She said so.” Now, that’s a right that I can get behind. But to me, the notion of inherited wealth and/or position is so far from my experience as to be downright bizarre. It’s a matter of class, I suppose—or classism. Why should Bunter be pressing the suits and Lord Peter wearing them? Simply because of their parentage. Lord Peter is intelligent and cultivated—but his brother, the Duke of Denver, is an idiot. And Bunter’s taste, especially in clothes, is better than Lord Peter’s.

Am I being cranky here? Do real-life people, except, perhaps, the very rich, even think about inheritance any more? Is it vanishing—or should it vanish—completely from mystery plots?


Sheila Connolly said...

Interesting question. Our national inheritance laws keep shifting with the political wind, but how many people do they really affect? I managed one estate for my family, and the equity in the house was really the only thing of value, and the whole was way under any federal limits.

But there are also emotional issues. When he knew he was dying, my father actually apologized that he had nothing to leave me--all his assets had been consumed by long-standing illness (plus his unpleasant third wife). Still, he felt that he should have something to pass on to his children, which I thought was both sweet and sad.

I can see a mystery plot (and can probably think of more than one real-world example) in which the heirs feel strongly about inheriting items with no real monetary value--a beloved picture or family heirloom, for example. So I doubt the plot device will go away.

jenny milchman said...

I agree with Shelia. (Both that this is an interesting question and that modern times have only changed, not erased it.) Siblings squabbling over whatever huge or meager legacy there is is a universal dynamic, less about money than power or parental love (as the great Shakespeare knew). And from today's enormous levels of debt (versus accrual of wealth) all sorts of mysterious twists and turns could ensue...

Sandra Parshall said...

I've never had much interest in mysteries that used money as the prime motivation for murder, so I won't mind seeing this type of story disappear. Many other motives are more understandable, and I do need to understand the killer's emotions, even if I can't sympathize with what he's done.

When a son or daughter kills a parent, even if it appears to be for money, I start wondering about the kind of parent-child relationship that could lead to such an act. What happened to make the child value money above a parent's life? That's where the real story lies.

Anonymous said...

Some people would (and do) murder for the $50 in the convenience store till. Those who sneer at the idea of killing in order to inherit even a $250,ooo house aren't living in the real world. Would you murder for an inheritance? Maybe not, but I believe greed is still the strongest motivation there is.

Hitch said...

I am an inheritor, and I am the administrator (trustee) of a family trust that is essentially a tontine. Not quite "last man standing," and all that, but close. While I would agree that the kingship/royalty plot device is seriously tired, and should be avoided even in fantasy novels, the money-as-motive device is alive and to speak.

As a trustee, I can easily see potential motive even in passive actions - for example, with a sibling that has a serious disease, do I distribute money now, or wait until his/her passing, thereore guaranteeing more money for ME? As one of the other siblings, do I do something that I can achieve easily, to hasten that person's passing, again, giving me a bigger piece of the pie? These aren't "plot devices;" these are real-world decisions that people make every day. Some of us try to make them honorably, but the squabbling, the greed and the need are very real, and to call them imaginary is to diminish them both in this world and the world lived in by any novel's inhabitants.

Therefore, no; I do not believe that this "plot device" will go away unless and until inheritance itself ceases to exist (pun intended) in any form or fashion.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wow, I'm impressed with the level of thought going into everybody's comments. It seems the shift since Shakespeare's time is from who's the rightful heir to power and land (the good-guys-are-loyal-to-the-baby syndrome) to who gets the money--an issue that's still alive and well.

Dave Bennett said...

I liked your ending, Bunter vs Wimsey. That's another plot device that may have been over-used in years past (Jeeves vs. Woosster, for example). But the by-play between servant and master is fun to read, and sometimes it's the servant who's the smart one. As far as inheritance is concerned as a plot device, though, I'm really not too sure. As someone else has noted, if it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for him (or her). One could imagine the offspring of some millionaire and his several wives vieing for the prize and coming to murderous methods to manage the win.

Lyn said...

My brother believed that inheritance tax should be 100%--until he had children.

True, the children did not earn the money they will inherit [i]but neither did the government[/i]. The ones who did earn the money have the right to do with it as they please,--split it amongst their children, or leave it to the cat.

Does anyone remember the Menendez brothers? They murdered both their parents--then claimed to have been abused, yada yada.
Does anyone deserve to inherit kingship? In the past, before literacy and communication, maybe yes. Anyway, a king is not a dictator: he must abide by the rules of his country. He is, above everything else, a symbol, sort of a living flag.

Very interesting post, Elizabeth.

Rob Walker said...

Alls I know for sure is that Shakespeare was among the most enlightened of forensic psychiatriss...way, way ahead of his time.
As to greed for a motive for murder, yeah, well and alive, but I think Liz is talking about the use of it as a primary plotline in a Dynasty styled setting that has been used to death to the point of cliche. How many TV shows like Dynasty have made us jaded over this storyline is the question, and I must say she's spot on in that regard. I do not care ever to see another film, TV program, or meandering mystery book about it myself.
Now a fresh twist on murder for greed is another matter.


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