Among many other things, crime fiction gives readers a look at culture and society. So, it’s really interesting (or perhaps it’s just that it interests me) to see how society changes over time by reading crime fiction from and about different time periods. Take shopping for instance. The Internet has revolutionised shopping in the last fifteen years or so. In fact, I know several people who do very little on-ground shopping any more. But it wasn’t always that way, and crime fiction shows us just what’s happened to the culture of shopping over time.
In several of Agatha Christie’s novels, we see examples of the small, family-owned village shop. And sometimes, those shops play a role in providing or refuting evidence about a crime. For instance, in Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle is arrested and tried for the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. There’s evidence against her, too. The last food Mary ate was a sandwich that Elinor made. Elinor had a strong motive, too, since her former fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman was infatuated with Mary. What’s more, Elinor had reason to believe that her wealthy Aunt Laura might leave her considerable fortune to Mary, since she was quite fond of the girl. But some of the most damning evidence comes from the local grocer Mr. Abbott, from whom Elinor bought two pots of fish paste for the sandwiches. She made a comment at the shop about the risk of tainted fish paste and that comes back to haunt her. Despite the evidence, local doctor Peter Lord wants Elinor’s name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and finds that this is a case that involves family histories and secrets.
You can still find those shops in small towns and villages. They’re not as common as they once were, but there are still places where the shop’s owner knows all of the customers. That’s what we see in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series, which takes place in the small town of Dappled Hills, North Carolina. Like many small towns, it’s got small shops, one of which is The Patchwork Cottage. The Patchwork Cottage’s specialty is supplies and materials for quilting and sewing projects, and it’s owned and run by local quilter Posy Beck. The shop is a local ‘information hub,’ which makes it a very useful source of clues in Knot What it Seams. In that novel, Beatrice Coleman, who’s recently joined the Village Quilters guild, gets involved in investigating the murder of the guild’s newest member Jo Paxton. Being the local mail carrier, Jo knew a lot of things that might not have been safe for her to know. Besides, she didn’t exactly have a pleasing personality, so she wasn’t on most people’s ‘A-list’ for parties. So Beatrice has more than one suspect as she puts together the pieces of this puzzle.
There are also small ‘mom and pop’ stores in large cities. In places such as New York and Los Angeles for instance, the cities are so large that culturally and socially speaking, many people identify more with a neighbourhood in the city than they do with the larger city. So they often get to know the local shops, whose proprietors get to know them. That’s what we see for instance in Aaron Elkins’ Loot. Boston art historian Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere has gotten into the habit of visiting the pawn shop of Simeon Pawlovsky, and the two have a sort of friendship. One day Pawlovsky calls Revere to ask him to take a look at a painting that’s just come into the shop. Pawlovsky thinks it might be valuable but he’s not completely sure. Revere takes a look at it and confirms that it’s an extremely valuable Velázquez. When Pawlovsky is murdered a short time later, Revere takes a personal interest in the case, in part because he knew the man and in part because he feels somewhat responsible. He’d told Pawlovsky not to keep such a valuable painting in his shop, but although Pawlovksky wouldn’t listen to him, Revere still feels he should have insisted more. It’s that personal interest that leads Revere to try to find out where the painting actually came from and how a painting like that ended up in a pawn shop. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but suffice to say that this is not a simple case of someone in desperate financial straits who sold a beloved family treasure.
At the end of the 19th Century, a new kind of shopping experience evolved: the department store. The whole idea of course was that you could buy lots of different things under the same roof. The original department stores were owned by families and they rose to prominence in the first decades of the 20th Century (Miracle on 34th Street, anyone? ). We see an example of the department store in all its glory in Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery. In that novel, Inspector Richard Queen and his son investigate the murder of Winifred French, whose body is found in one of the display windows of her husband Cyrus’ department store. In order to find out who the killer is, the Queens look into the French family’s personal life as well as their relationships with the members of the department store staff. So readers get an interesting look ‘behind the scenes’ at one of the great old-fashioned (by today’s standards) department stores.
After the end of World War II, people started moving from cities out to suburbs and other ‘commuter communities.’ So of course, shopping followed them. The suburban shopping mall was heralded as the solution to modern shopping needs. All that any shopper needed was under one roof – no need to risk heat, cold, rain, snow or problems finding or paying for a parking spot. The ‘mall culture’ of the mid- and late twentieth century is (in my opinion) brilliantly captured in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. That story, which begins in 1984, features ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who dreams of being a detective. In fact, she’s opened her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. The Green Oaks Shopping Center has just opened in her area, and Kate thinks that the new mall will be a perfect place to look for potential criminals and suspicious activity. So she spends a lot of time at the mall. Then one day, Kate disappears after going to the exclusive Redspoon School to sit the entrance exams. Everyone thinks that her friend Adrian Palmer is responsible for her disappearance, but he swears he isn’t. Still, his life is made so miserable that he leaves town, intending never to return. Twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa has a dead-end job as Assistant Manager at Your Music, one of the mall stores. One night she strikes up a sort of unlikely friendship with Kurt, who works as a security guard at the mall. Kurt ends up telling Lisa about something strange he’s been seeing on the security cameras: a young girl with a backpack. His description of the girl tallies with Lisa’s recollections of Kate and, each in a different way, Kurt and Lisa go back to the past, so to speak, as we learn what really happened to Kate. Among other things, this novel depicts the mall culture as well as the effect on village and small-town shops of the coming of big regional malls.
Today of course, there’s a lot of online shopping, which has its own risks and advantages. There are still malls, too, and small shops if you know where to go. And there are plazas like the one in the ‘photo. That means there are a lot more options than ever for shoppers and for vendors. That also means lots of different choices for authors who want to sell books, and for people who want to buy them. But that part of it’s the stuff of another post…
What about you? Where do you shop?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Warren Zevon’s Down in the Mall.