For most of us, trips to the barber shop or hair stylist are part of our routines. They’re places where we put life aside for a short while and take some time for ourselves, if only for the few minutes it takes to get our hair trimmed. But if you think about it, beauty salons and barber shops are also really effective contexts for crime novels. For one thing, a lot of gossip is exchanged at such places. So they’re very good places for sleuths to ‘listen in.’ And since barbers and hair stylists hear a lot of things, they’re awfully vulnerable when someone would rather keep something a secret. What’s more, people often have their guards down, so to speak, when they get their hair cut. So a barber shop or beauty salon can also be a solid setting for a murder. Little wonder that such places are woven through crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, we meet London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. After a lucky win in a lottery, Jane decides to use some of her prize for a holiday at Le Pinet. During her flight back from Paris to London, one of her fellow passengers Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, so he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the murderer is. Since the only possible suspects are the victim’s fellow passengers, Jane comes in for her share of questioning. And she learns that sometimes, being mixed up in a murder case gets a person quite a lot of publicity and can even be good for one’s career. Jane’s occupation isn’t the reason for the murder, but in the course of the story, readers get a look at a London beauty salon, and there are some funny moments as Jane and her colleagues encounter all sorts of different clients and deal with their irascible boss.
In Rex Stout’s novella The Cop-Killer, the Goldenrod Barber Shop, where both Archie Goodwin and his boss Nero Wolfe get their hair cut, becomes the focus of a triple murder investigation. When two women are killed by a hit-and-run driver, police detective Jake Wallen thinks he has tracked the killer to the barber shop. He’s following up on this lead when he himself is stabbed. Suspicion falls on Carl and Tina Vardas, who work at the shop and who are in the country illegally. They ask Goodwin to help them, since they know they’re likely to be deported at the very least. Goodwin agrees to at least look into the matter and he and Wolfe trace Wallen’s movements to find out who killed him and why.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box introduces us to retired teacher Myrtle Clover. She gets her hair done at The Beauty Box, a hair salon in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. Lately, the shop’s owner Tammy Smith has been having some very obvious problems. She’s been ruining people’s hair and drinking quite a lot. It’s very clear that something’s wrong, but Tammy’s not saying what it is. Then one night she’s stabbed in the back with a pair of shears and pushed down the stairs to the shop’s basement. There’s talk that Tammy’s niece Kat Roberts is guilty, and it’s not impossible. Kat works at the shop and everyone knows the plan was for her to take over some day. What’s more, she’s quarreled with her aunt more than once. Kat says she’s innocent though, and Myrtle believes her. It turns out that this murder has more to do with Tammy’s personal life than with her skill at styling.
In Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters, DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate the death of Meredith Winterbottom, who lives in Jerusalem Lane with her two sisters. On the surface of it, the death looks like a suicide. But Kolla isn’t so sure of that and Brock agrees that she should look into the matter more closely. It turns out that there are several possibilities too. For one thing, a development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to create a new shopping and entertainment complex, but the victim was holding out and refusing to sell. For another, Meredith’s son Terry stands to inherit the house in Jerusalem Lane. He’s the owner of several beauty salons in the area and has found himself in real financial trouble. The sale of the house to the developers will make a big difference. And then there’s the fact that Meredith and her sisters are descendants of Karl Marx, and have several old papers and books among their possessions. Those items are potentially worth a great deal of money. One of the leads that the detectives follow is Terry’s business situation. A little digging into his life as a salon owner turns up some not-very-above-board doings. And you thought you could trust a salon owner… ;-)
We see how vulnerable people can be at barber shops and salons in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra.’ In that novel, which takes place in 1957, New York Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is murdered in the barber shop at the Park Sheraton Hotel (If that story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s based on a real event). On the very same day, a hippopotamus escapes from the zoo in Havana. What’s interesting is that the two incidents are related. Joaquín Porrata is a young Cuban journalist who’s assigned to cover the story of the escaped hippo. When the zookeeper hints that there’s a Mob connection in both cases, Porrata senses a much bigger story. So he digs deeper and finds himself getting dangerously involved in the Cuban/American Mob scene.
And then there’s Douglas Lindsay’s Barney Thomson series. When we first meet Thomson in The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, he’s a nondescript Glasgow barber with an unhappy marriage. The customers at the barber shop usually bypass him for the other two barbers, and few people really pay attention to him at all. He’s socially awkward and certainly not prepossessing. He’s got a morose attitude to life, and for good reason. And in his fantasies, he’d love to commit a murder or two. And, as it turns out, there’s a serial killer who wouldn’t mind lending a hand. This is a comic-noir twist on the barber shop theme, and for those who enjoy that sort of dark wit, there is a lot of humour here.
See what I mean? We may take those trips to the hair stylist or barber for granted, but you never know what can happen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with my stylist. Don’t want to be late, you know; she doesn’t like that…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s Ballad of Sweeney Todd (Prologue).