When Black Friday Comes*

Black FridayIt’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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Catherine O'Flynn, Ellery Queen, Gene Kerrigan, Louise Penny

14 responses to “When Black Friday Comes*

  1. My office is just off Oxford Circus, one of London’s biggest shopping centres and darn if the festivities don;t seem to start earlier every year! The bemusement does wear off very quickly amongst the sea of shopper – great cover for a crime though and frankly, I might be tempted when trapped by hordes of shoppers for the umpteenth time when all I want to do is get home of an evening – o I think I can understand the the of THE RAGE! Well, at least a little bit …

    • Sergio – LOL! I know exactly what you mean. I’ve never shopped at Oxford Circus but I’ve heard of it. I can well imagine it’s a nightmare starting about now. I live within walking distance of a local shopping centre that is always terrible at this time of year. It’s nearly impossible to simply go in and pick up a few things on the way home from work. As you say though, terrific cover for a crime, and enough jangled (or is that jingled ;-) ) nerves to make one likely.

  2. It’s often stated in detective stories that the 2 main motives are love and money… you’ve made me think of two books where an actress is at the heart of the story, and the plot revolves around making sure she stays successful, and thus a profit-maker. Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue, and Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds. Two excellent books, quite different despite having that similar thread running through…

    • Moira – Oh, that’s a very good call. And you’re absolutely right that wanting to make sure someone remains a ‘cash cow’ is an important form of commercialism. Those are good examples.

  3. Col

    You and Moira, with her post earlier in the week have me interested in trying Maitland’s books – or at least one of them! He’s never really appeared on my radar and twice in one week, must be a hint there that needs acting upon! Love Kerrigan, loved The Rage!

  4. Luckily, the Christmas shopping frenzy seems to be a little later and more muted in France than in the UK, although it is getting more visible and commercial every year. I was trying to think of a non-Anglo-Saxon crime novel where Christmas plays an important part – or the run-up to Christmas- and the only one I could think of was The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo, when someone gets assassinated during a street concert by the Salvation Army. And yet, as you say, those huddled masses provide the perfect cover for murder…

    • Marina Sofia – I’m glad that the pre-Christmas shopping season is at least a little less frenetic and commercial where you live. Thanks too for mentioning The Redeemer. That one does indeed show how all of the crowds can make for a very effective cover for a murder. And that’s especially true when the crowd’s attention is on something like the concert.

  5. On the other hand, Margot, I’d have to say that traditional Christmas celebrations – particularly in the UK – can be every bit as dangerous (in mysteries, at least) as the commercialized versions. If I had a dollar for every traditional dysfunctional-family-gathers-at-Christmas book, I would be a very wealthy person. In Ngaio Marsh’s “Tied Up in Tinsel,” for instance, a traditional Christmas pageant staged in a country house is absolutely central to the plot – and Marsh’s description of the pageant (including a gift-dispensing Druid) is done with a theatre-producer’s eye for memorable detail. It’s a favorite of mine.

    • Les – Oh, no doubt at all about that. Christmas gatherings are such effective settings for murder mysteries, which is why they’re used as often as they are. And Tied Up in Tinsel is a wonderful example. Just love those characters!

  6. Definitely planning to read Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage and O’Flynn’s What Was Lost in 2014.

    • Tracy – Oh, I really hope you get the chance to do that. They are both excellent novels, highly recommended. They’re quite different to each other, but both are top quality.

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