Many 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.