Trollope, it is probably fair to say, really needed a spoiler alert just about every time he spoke directly to his readers in his narrator’s voice from chapter one onwards in his novels. Indeed, even he recognised this trait when he lamented in his Autobiography that, “The plot of Orley Farm is probably the best I have ever made; but it has the fault of declaring itself, and thus coming to an end too early in the book. When Lady Mason tells her ancient lover that she did forge the will, the plot has unravelled itself; – and this she does in the middle of the tale.”
This did not prevent him from continuing to make crimes the heart of many of his novels. The Eustace Diamonds are stolen not once but, in a brilliant double twist, twice. Lizzie Eustace first fakes their theft in Carlisle to cover her desire to pawn them for cash only to have them subsequently stolen from her for real in London.
Lizzie makes for an engaging thief with her forgetfulness in the details of her cover story of how her late husband gave her the jewels but I must confess to a degree of exasperation with the Reverend Crawley whose other-worldliness is so extreme that he plain forgets what he did with a cheque that he is accused of stealing in The Last Chronicle of Barset.
Perhaps, Trollope’s greatest crime story is the financial fraud on a grand scale perpetrated by Augustus Melmotte in The Way We Live Now. His South Central Pacific and Mexican Railroad scam is a classic of its kind and as viable today as it was when published in 1875. The words “too big to fail” spring to mind and any passing resemblance to Bernie Madoff is perforce purely coincidental.
Yet Melmotte is not an unattractive villain. His fall is drawn with genuine sympathy which makes it all the more powerful. Trollope’s ability to create character is surely at its best in creating such a character who is painted not black but in many shades of grey. He is even the victim of theft himself as his daughter Marie, another sympathetically drawn character (who would be the daughter of such a father?), steals from him the cash needed to finance her attempt to elope.