Have you ever been to an outdoor market or bazaar? They can be great places to find all sorts of things from clothes to music to art, and a lot more besides. There are often food stalls, too (OK, perhaps not the most nutritious food, but still…). If you’ve been to this kind of market than you know that they can be a lot of fun, and sometimes there are some real finds.
Bazaars and outdoor markets also can make very effective backdrops for scenes in crime novels. They’re full of activity and because they’re open-air, a lot of different things can happen in them and still seem credible. They also offer really interesting ways for the author to introduce local culture, local food and so on. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s short story Jane in Search of a Job, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, a young woman who thinks she’s found the answer to her financial troubles when she responds to an unusual employment advertisement. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ Jane is hired as a ‘double’ for Her Highness, the Grand Duchess Pauline of Ostrova. The duchess is afraid that revolutionaries from her home country will try to kidnap her, so it’s been agreed that the best thing to do is to hire an impersonator for a few weeks to take her place at certain public events. The arrangement works out well enough at first. Then comes the bazaar at Orion House, which is in aid of Ostrovan refugees. The duchess must appear there herself, since its sponsor knows her personally. But the team looking out for her safety concocts a plan to keep her as well-protected as possible. It’s successful enough at first, but then Jane finds herself in quite a lot more danger than she imagined…
Charlotte Jay’s Arms For Adonis is the story of Sarah Lane, a young English woman who’s living in a village near Beirut with her French lover Marcel. She decides to leave him and packs her things. Then she goes into Beirut where she visits an outdoor market. She’s enjoying looking through the stalls when a bomb goes off. This changes everything for Sarah. Before she really knows what’s happened, she’s rescued – or is it abducted? – and is whisked away to a house she doesn’t know. Her plan had originally been to return to London, but little by little, she finds herself enmeshed in a web of intrigue, revolution and murder.
In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from a friend Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop. Pawlovsky’s just gotten hold of a painting he suspects might be valuable, and he wants Revere’s opinion of it. Revere agrees and goes to the pawn shop. There he discovers to his shock that the painting is very likely a genuine Velázquez. He wants to do a little more background reading on the painting, and he’s worried about Pawlovsky keeping such a valuable piece of art in his shop. But Pawlovsky insists it’ll be safe there for the few hours it will take for Revere to do his research. Reluctantly, Revere agrees and goes to the library to read up on the painting. It turns out that this particular painting was one of a group that was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis and then disappeared. This adds a layer of real historical interest to the painting too. Excited about the possibilities, Revere returns to the pawn shop only to find that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Feeling guilty for abandoning his friend and putting him in that much danger, Revere wants to find out who is responsible. He believes that if he can track the painting’s journey from its last known place among Nazi ‘borrowed’ art to the pawn shop, he can find out who the murderer is. The trail leads Revere to Budapest where it seems that a crime boss named Szarvas has claimed ownership of the painting. Szarvas is, to say the least, not a pleasant or generous person, and there’s a very suspenseful scene in an outdoor market during which Revere tracks Szarvas down and tries to ask him about the painting – and then risks Szarvas’ displeasure.
Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place mostly in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Bruno is Chief of Police there, and has gotten to know the people he serves very well. One thing he knows (and values!) about them is their love of good food and good cooking. And like the other local residents, he enjoys St. Denis’ weekly market. Unfortunately for the townspeople, health inspectors from the EU Ministry of Health in Brussels have also taken an interest in the market. The people of the Périgord are no more eager to spread contamination than anyone else is, but they’ve had their own ways of preserving food safety for generations. They have no interest in ‘outsiders’ coming in and telling them how they must prepare, cook, serve and store food. Secretly, Bruno agrees with the locals, but as a police officer, he also has to do his job. As we find out in Bruno, Chief of Police, he has a creative way of striking that very delicate balance. While the ‘market raids’ of the EU inspectors aren’t really the main plot of this novel, they do give readers a look at the outdoor market culture of that area.
Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. To put it mildly, O’Donnell hasn’t had an easy time of it. She comes from a severely dysfunctional family and has her share of scars from that experience. She’s also had to deal with other ‘bad breaks’ and in some ways, she’s emotionally quite fragile. But she’s a strong character who’s working out who she’ll be and where she’ll fit in. In Resolution, the third novel in this series, O’Donnell works at a market stall, where she and a friend sell cleaning products. One day, Ella McGee, who sells bootlegged music at another stall, is viciously attacked. O’Donnell is facing her own troubles as she prepares to testify against the person who murdered her former lover. Her family problems haven’t gone away either. But she is willing to pitch in when McGee asks her for help in filling out a complaint form after the attack. To O’Donnell’s surprise, the alleged attacker is McGee’s own son. Soon O’Donnell finds herself getting involved in that case at the same time as she’s trying to work out the rest of her life.
And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Pranav Gupta hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out the truth about the murder of his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ Neil was on a visit to the Middle East, where he was giving guest lectures on antique carpets, and also choosing some valuable samples for the University of Saskatoon’s permanent display. He’d been visiting various homes, markets and so on to find what he wanted. According to the police, he and some friends were in an open-air market in Dubai having an impromptu party when some local thugs attacked and killed him. But his father doesn’t think it was a random murder. He believes that Neil was killed in a hate crime incident because he was gay. Quant isn’t sure that he’ll be able to find out anything that the police couldn’t, but he travels to Dubai to learn what he can. He soon discovers that Neil’s murder wasn’t in the least bit random. Oh, and fans will know that Quant is also involved in a case of open-air-market danger in Tapas on the Ramblas.
Bazaars and open-air markets really can be exciting, and you can find some terrific bargains and unexpected treasures. But as you can see from these few examples (I know, I know, fans of Timothy Hallinan’s and Angela Savage’s work), they can also be dangerous. So do be careful if you find yourself in one of them…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.