Greed Is God
Greed stalks desperation. The desire to exploit can slither down through the cracks and find people hidden from sight and in the greatest need. In an industry driven by greed, the desperate are fodder. That moment, where greed finally catches up with desperation, is where so much great crime fiction resides.
The heist happens because characters like Richard Stark’s Parker are greedy. Parker wants to live an easy life on his terms, long spells between jobs where he doesn’t have to worry about money, and so he steals. Any target is acceptable, so long as it’s profitable. He is a man prepared to kill and kill again to achieve this, inured to violence and immune to the suffering of others. Raffles he ain’t. It’s powerful greed that drives an instinctively intelligent and strong man to chase other people’s money instead of his own.
Some are greedy for money, others, like James Ellroy’s Dudley Smith, are chasing power. A willingness to twist and burn their victims, to ruin and kill for the sake of being able to do it all again with impunity. There’s more self-delusion here, the belief that the power they crave is best held by their hands, but the greed is only a different colour of the same animal as Parkers, and it shapes them both into something sharp.
Greed shaped as lust is an old favourite. It has the distinction of being the one form of greed that tends to blunt the mind, mixed as it is with desperation. The greed to possess the femme fatale, the desperation to get to something you know should be out of reach, these things provoke poor choices. Walter Huff in James M Cain’s Double Indemnity if fired so hot by Phyllis Nirdlinger that his good sense melts, but her greed remains as cool as Parker’s.
The problem with money is that there never seems to be the right amount. For the vast majority of people there is far too little, and for very few there is too much. Most will chase it to the grave; a tiny minority will be crushed by its weight. So many characters are brought into contact with the greedy through need, not want. A reluctant search for money that has to be found, bringing them into the orbit of people who can find it. Exploitation becomes inevitable.
Often we think of people being desperate for the most dramatic reasons. Blackmailed or a business going under, something that would destroy their life and the lives of others. That need to protect loved ones from some catastrophe that forces them to do things they wouldn’t normally and shouldn’t ever consider. In reality, the desperate meet the greedy for far more mundane reasons. A person loses their job and needs to borrow money to put food on the table. An unexpected debt that spirals slowly beyond their fingertips, never willing to be controlled. Most will not be drawn into an imaginative robbery with the potential for murder. Instead they’ll borrow money from someone they shouldn’t. Or they’ll accept a grubby job offer that they wouldn’t previously have considered, knowing that what they’re doing is illegal.
The reality of who greed targets may not be so dramatic, but it is nonetheless fascinating. What limits do we impose on ourselves in the face of desperation? Can we see the greed in others or is it too well hidden behind the high wall our immediate need throws up to block our progress? Digging into these questions leads down the dark paths where crime fiction lives.
Malcolm Mackay is the author of THE NIGHT THE RICH MEN BURNED, another chilling blast from Glasgow’s underworld—the setting of Mackay’s acclaimed Glasgow Trilogy—this time set in the shadowy world of debt collection. But it’s the story of two young friends, and their inevitable slide into a life of crime, that gives this novel its light and heat.