It’s already happening. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Christmas holiday shopping season has well and truly started. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it’s hard to deny that the holiday means big, big business. So it’s become quite commercialised. On the one hand, companies really do depend on holiday sales, and charitable groups depend on holiday giving. On the other hand, I think most of us would agree that there’s a saturation point. And that’s the thing about commercialism. There’s a fine line between wanting to make a profit (which most of us would say is perfectly fine) and tasteless ‘overkill.’ It’s not easy to define that line since it may be different for each of us. But we all know it’s there. That sense of over-commercialism is certainly there in crime fiction, too.
For example, both Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly and After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) take place at least in part in traditional family homes that have been intact properties for generations. In both novels there’s discussion of the fact that wartime privation and financial straits have made it necessary to sell a lot of those homes and turn them into commercial Guest Houses. There’s a lot of wistfulness expressed about the days before that commercialism, too. While that change is not the reason for the murders in these stories, it does make for an interesting social commentary. On the other hand, 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) begins as Elspeth McGillicuddy is en route to visit Miss Marple after having done some Christmas shopping – three days before Christmas. I’d guess the Christmas rush didn’t start as early then…
There aren’t many places with more commercialism than Hollywood. In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts for instance, Queen has been under contract at Magna Studios, but hasn’t done any productive work. Then, he’s asked to work on the screenplay for a brand-new biopic featuring famous actors John Royle and Blythe Stuart. The two had a very public and stormy love affair and since it ended, have had nothing to do with each other. Each married someone else and each now has a grown child. The Stuart/Royle feud has been passed on, too, to Stuart’s daughter Bonnie and Royle’s son Ty. To everyone’s shock, both Stuart and Royle agree to do the film and at first, the studio executives plan to exploit the feud for all it’s financially worth. Then, in an even bigger surprise, Royle and Stuart re-kindle their romance and decide to marry. In an effort to find another way to profit from the famous couple, the management team decides to plan a Hollywood-style wedding, with all of the hype you’d expect. The couple is married on an airstrip just before boarding a private plane for their honeymoon. During the flight, both die of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other. But soon enough there turn out to be other suspects. Commercialism isn’t the reason for these murders, but it’s certainly an important theme in the story.
It’s also an important theme in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. Three sisters, Meredith Winterbottom, Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe live in Jerusalem Lane, one of London’s historic districts. When Meredith unexpectedly dies, the first theory is that she committed suicide. It’s not a far-fetched theory either as she was elderly and in financial difficulty. But DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla aren’t completely satisfied and Kolla begins to investigate. It soon turns out that there are good reasons to believe Meredith was murdered. For one thing, a huge development project is underway that will completely gut Jerusalem Lane and turn it into a commercial zone and tourist district. Meredith refused to sell and she and her sisters have been among the last ‘hold-outs.’ And then there’s her son Terry, who stands to gain quite a bit from the sale of his mother’s property, which he inherits on her death. There are other reasons too, and Kolla and Brock have to dig through the area’s history and the network of relationships in the sisters’ lives to find out the truth.
There’s a haunting theme of the effects of commercialism in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. The novel begins with the opening of Green Oaks Shopping Center in 1984. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who dreams of being a detective, spends a lot of time there honing her detective skills and looking for suspicious activity. One day she and her friend Adrian Palmer take a bus to the exclusive Redspoon School where she’s to sit the entrance exams. When Kate doesn’t return, everyone blames Adrian although he swears he had nothing to do with it. An extensive search yields nothing, not even a body. It’s not until twenty years later that any answers turn up. By then, Adrian’s sister Lisa is the assistant manager of Your Music, one of the stores in Green Oaks. One night she meets security guard Kurt, who’s been seeing some strange things on the footage of the security cameras. He’s been seeing images of a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. When he tells Lisa about it, the two of them, each in a different way, go back to the past if you will. In the end we learn what really happened to Kate and why. Throughout this novel, there’s a theme of the commercialism and the ‘plastic’ life that malls can bring to an area. There’s also a theme of what happens to ‘High Street shopping’ when commercialism takes over.
Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) begins shortly before Christmas. C.C. de Poitiers and her family move to the small Québec town of Three Pines. She’s a self-styled ‘life guru’ whose book Be Calm has sold quite well. She’s commercialised the concept of a meaningful life and done quite well financially. But in her private life, things are quite different. She’s abusive and cruel, and it’s not long before she alienates nearly everyone. When she is electrocuted during a Boxing Day curling match, Sûreté Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate. In this novel, there’s a great deal of commercialism in the way that de Poitiers has marketed herself. There’s also a hint of commercialism in one scene in the novel when a few of the Three Pines residents go to Montréal to do their Christmas shopping. It’s a really fascinating contrast to the quiet life of Three Pines.
And then there’s Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. That novel takes place shortly after the bursting of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic ‘bubble’ of the 1990s. The booming economy of that period led to a lot of development and many people took a great deal of financial risk to get their share of that commercial prize. Among them was Dublin banker Emmet Sweetman. When he is found shot in his own home, DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate. One of the themes in this novel is the way commercialism put a lot of people at a great deal of risk; that theme adds a layer of interest to the story.
Most people would say that there’s nothing wrong with earning a fair profit for one’s work. But as crime fiction shows us, there’s definitely such a thing as over-commercialisation and it has consequences.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I mustn’t miss those holiday bargain sales! ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s Black Friday.