There’s a Pawn Shop on a Corner*

Pawn ShopsMany people have times in their lives when they’ve run low on money and need a loan. One place people go is, of course, to a bank. But a bank loan isn’t always feasible – not if you have no credit (or poor credit). Besides, banks require information that some people would rather not provide, particularly if they want to stay ‘off the grid.’ So there are plenty of people who look for other ways to raise money quickly.

One solution is the pawn shop. Pawn shops have been around for a very long time, and still provide an important service. Some are disreputable, and even dangerous. But lots of them are simply businesses, like any other small business. And they can provide important clues to detectives who are trying to form a portrait of a murder victim. After all, financial situations can be powerful motives, or at least valuable clues, as to the story behind a killing. What’s more, they can be fascinating in their own right, considering all of the interesting merchandise they may sell.

For a long time, it was a cause for deep shame (and still is, in some cases) if a wealthy family was in need of money. Such people often didn’t want to risk others knowing about their situation, so they wouldn’t go to banks for a loan. Instead, they’d go to places such as pawn shops. That’s the sort of client who might have visited the pawn shop of Jabez Wilson, whom we meet in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-Headed League. Wilson visits Sherlock Holmes because he’s had a very strange experience. He saw and responded to an advertisement for a job doing easy work. The only requirement was that the successful candidate must have red hair. At first, the job worked out well; Wilson was asked to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was easy enough, and he was paid. But one day, he went to work as usual only to find the doors locked and a sign announcing the disbanding of the Red-Headed League. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate this league, and find that the whole thing was really a cover for a plot to rob a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to persuade her husband, the 4th Baron Edgware, to grant her a divorce so she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot reluctantly agrees to at least speak to Edgware, and he and Captain Hastings make a visit. Edgware tells them that he has no objections to a divorce; surprised by this, Poirot and Hastings pass the news on to their client. That night, Edgware is stabbed. His wife is the obvious suspect, and it doesn’t help her case that someone who looked just like her came to the house and gave her name at the door just before the murder. But Jane says she was at a party in another part of London, and there are plenty of people who will swear she was there. As Poirot, Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp look for other suspects, they concentrate on Ronald Marsh, Edgware’s nephew and the heir to both title and fortune. It turns out that he was in real financial trouble and his uncle refused to help. When his alibi proves false, Marsh says that he was desperate for money, and that his cousin Geraldine, the victim’s daughter, gave him her pearls to pawn. The pawn shop proprietor supports Marsh, too. It’s an interesting look at the way someone might raise money quickly at that time.

Aaron Elkins’ Loot introduces us to Boston pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. One day an unusually valuable object comes his way. Someone drops off what could be a rare painting at the shop. Pawlovsky wants a sense of how much it’s worth, so he calls his friend, art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. Revere visits the shop and takes a look at the painting. Much to his surprise, it looks like a priceless Velázquez, one of several paintings that were ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. Revere wants to do more research on the work, and at first, wants to take it with him. Pawlovsky refuses, even though it’s quite dangerous for him to keep something so valuable in his shop. Reluctantly, Revere agrees to do his research and come back later. When he does, he discovers Pawlovsky’s body. He feels guilty about what might be his role in the man’s death; besides, he wants to know who killed his friend. So he decides that if he can trace the painting forward, from the time the Nazis took it to the time it showed up in the shop, he can find out who the murderer is. The trail leads to Europe and some very dangerous people…

Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo is the first outing for his Harry Bosch, who’s with the LAPD. When the body of an unknown man is found in a drainpipe, it’s assumed the victim is a junkie who died of an overdose. But Bosch finds out to his shock that the dead man is Billy Meadows, a friend from Bosch’s stint in Vietnam. He looks back over the case to find out who would have wanted to kill Meadows. One of the clues that was missed in the first, cursory investigation is a pawn ticket that was in the dead man’s pocket. He traces that ticket to the pawn shop of a Mr. Obina, who has his own story to tell. His shop was broken into, and he’s been waiting for someone – anyone – to come and take a report and investigate. Bosch does what he can to get someone out there quickly; in return, Obina tells him that the bracelet corresponding to the pawn ticket was stolen in the robbery. It turns out that the theft of the bracelet is closely related to Meadows’ murder.

Private detective Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver finds a pawn shop useful in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour hires Gilver when she begins to suspect that her husband may be trying to kill her. Gilver takes a job at the Balfour home as a maid and begins her investigation. One night, Lollie’s husband Philip ‘Pip’ is murdered. The police take over the case, and Gilver provides what help she can. There are several possibilities when it comes to suspects, because to say the least, the victim was not popular. His will opens up other possibilities. In the process of following up leads, she decides to learn more about Phyllis, the housemaid. One day, Gilver follows Phyllis as she goes on her ‘day out.’ Surprisingly, Phyllis goes to a pawn shop. At first, Gilver thinks that Phyllis has got hold of some family treasure or other and is pawning it to line her pockets. But as it turns out, she has another reason for going…

Pawn shops can be really interesting places in and of themselves, and there are often a lot of personal stories that go with the merchandise. Little wonder they have their place in crime fiction. I’ve had my say. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Merrill’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catriona McPherson, Michael Connelly

24 responses to “There’s a Pawn Shop on a Corner*

  1. I’m going to go a long way back – a really early ‘crime novel’ is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where the crime is Raskalnikov’s murder of an elderly lady who is a pawnbroker and money-lender. He thinks she is a wicked person, someone adds nothing to the value of the world. But he learns that no action is without consequences.

    • Oh, Moira, that’s a great addition, for which thank you! What a gaping hole I left! And this is an interesting example, too, of the nexus of literary novels and crime novels.

  2. I don’t know how you come up with all these themes Margot – I’m sure I must have read zillions of books containing pawnshops over the years, but can’t think of a single one. I think you should do a ‘Challenge Margot’ slot where we pick random themes and see what you come up with. I pick detectives in space… 😉

    • 😆 Thank you, FictionFan. That’s awfully kind of you :-). And as far as ‘detectives in space’ goes, you may wish to try Asimov’s short story The Dying Night. It takes place at an astronomy conference off Earth. When a murder occurs, Wendell Urth, noted expert on conditions on other planets, solves the case…

  3. In the past I have made some great purchases in pawn shops :), particularly jewellery. The stories they could ell.

  4. Interesting choice Margot – the only hero who runs a pawnshop that I can think of was also one of the first female detectives: Fergus Hume’s Hagar Stanley, who ran a pawnshop in Lambeth in South London – the book, HAGAR OF THE PAWN-SHOP (1898) is available online over at Gutenberg:

    • Oh, thank you, Sergio! I’m always so grateful to the Gutenberg Press people for making some of those terrific older books available. I’ll definitely have to check that one out.

  5. Col

    I read the Bosch-Connelly book years ago, but can only recall snippets I’m afraid.

    • I know what you mean, Col. I’ve only got fuzzy memories of some books I read long ago too. That’s one’s well worth a re-read, in my opinion, if you ever get the time.

  6. I like how you focus on a theme and find IT in several stories. The Red-Headed League (the Sherlock Holmes story) was wildly inventive! It was so funny. Even Holmes busted out laughing when he first heard Jabez Wilson’s story [and later discovered that some clever criminals were making a “rube” out of Mr. Wilson…].

    A Pawn Shop is a great environment for a story. 🙂

  7. Patti Abbott

    It certainly connotes a level of despair that might lead to all sorts of things. Which reminds me I have THE PAWNBROKER around somewhere. Never have seen it.

    • Oh, I’ve not seen that one, either, Patti. But you’re right about pawnshops. Sometimes they really connote that sort of despair and desperation that could lead in a lot of different directions.

  8. I’ve read many that reference pawn shops, as in a piece of jewelry belonging to the victim was found there. But I don’t think I’ve read any that really concentrate on one. That would make an interesting story, a murder set in a pawn shop where the owner is crooked. Lots of suspects to throw off the reader. “Loot” peaks my interest here. Is it a cozy or thriller?

    • Sue – Loot is fascinating in that it’s really neither cosy nor thriller, although there are some of the elements one associates with thrillers (e.g. pacing, certain kinds of danger, etc..). It’s got a solid sense of wit too, and is a fascinating story. I recommend it. And you’re right; a pawn shop would be a terrific context for a murder. There is so much possibility there.

  9. Once again you’ve foiled me Margot, I know I’ve read books with pawn shops in them but I’m unable to come with a single one!

  10. Kathy D.

    This is such an interesting topic — and I do not think that we blog readers could come up with a topic about which you wouldn’t have a book or two.
    I can’t think of how many books I’ve read where a pawn ticket wasn’t a clue to a victim or suspect’s identity.
    One book in which the value of pawnshops is mentioned, but not central to the plot is Gordon Ferris’ Pilgrim Soul. Ferris mentions that women, spouses of factory workers, would pawn their wedding ring or mother’s earrings to feed their children. Then they’d get their spouses’ wages in cash before they could “drink it up,” as Ferris says, and return to the shop and reclaim their jewelry. Then the following week they’d go through the same routine.
    I am sure this is true in many cities and countries, where the pawnshop is part of economic survival for many poor people.

    • That’s very kind of you, Kathy. Not sure it’s at all true, but still… And I’m glad you mentioned Pilgrim Soul, too. Ferris has a lot of talent, and he writes very well about the ‘down and out’ types who, as you say, need to pawn things. Even wedding rings and other sentimentally important things are pawned when the children are hungry. And your comment about payday makes me think of a scene in The Hanging Shed that describes women going to the factories on payday to be sure to get their husbands’ pay before it all gets ‘drunk up.’

  11. Kathy D.

    Yes, Ferris makes the same point in Pilgrim Soul about women grabbing their husbands’ wages.
    I meant to say that I’ve read a lot of crime fiction where a pawn ticket helps a detective find a suspect, witness or the identity of a victim. That may not be so true these days, what with credit cards and so on.

    • That’s true, Kathy, that things have changed in terms of using credit cards. It’d be interesting to know how it’s affected the pawn business. That’s an interesting question, actually…

  12. I love it when a pawnshop shows up in a mystery. They are usually very interesting. And I did love reading Aaron Elkins’ Loot.

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