I Went Down to the Chelsea Drugstore*

PharmaciesYou probably visit them without even thinking about it. Perhaps you have a cold, or need a headache remedy. If you’ve been to see a doctor, you may have a prescription. Yes, I’m talking about pharmacies. Today’s larger pharmacy chains, such as Boots, Walgreen’s, PharmaChoice and Amcal, offer a lot more than medicine, too. You can get just about anything from lotions to cereal to small appliances. At the pharmacy nearest where I live, you can even get your passport ‘photo taken.

Of course, the concept of what a pharmacy is and does is different across cultures. And those ideas have changed considerably over time. But in whatever form, pharmacies play important roles in our lives – and in our crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she had a background in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. So it’s little wonder that she makes use more than once of the chemist’s and the hospital dispensary. For instance, in After the Funeral, Hercule Poirot looks into the untimely, if not unexpected, death of Richard Abernethie. When the members of Abernethie’s family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; even she asks the family to ignore what she said. But privately, all of her relatives begin to wonder whether she’s right. The wondering turns to certainty when Cora herself is murdered the next day. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this mystery is Gregory Banks, nephew-by-marriage to both Abernethie and his sister. Banks is a chemist’s assistant who, it turns out, has a questionable history. It is said that he once offered to sell a customer poison to kill her husband. And when Poirot meets Banks, he learns that the man is psychologically very fragile. Now Poirot has to decide whether that means Banks is the killer. I know, I know, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client) and of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In Michael Collins’ short story Who?, we learn about Boyd Conners, a young man whose job is making deliveries from a local drugstore. One day, he suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. He was in very good health, and not a drug user, so his mother is convinced that there’s something more to his death. She visits PI Dan Fortune to ask him to investigate. As Fortune begins to look into the case, he learns that there are a few possibilities. For one thing, there’s the victim’s romantic rival Roger Tatum. There’s also a local group of hoodlums who might have wanted him dead. As it turns out though, the actual killer is someone who isn’t even a suspect.

In the US, drugstores used to be more than just places to purchase aspirin. They used to be social gathering places. We see that, for instance, in John D. MacDonald’s short story The Homicidal Hiccup. Walter Maybree has purchased the local drugstore, and wants to keep it a safe ‘clean’ place for young people to meet, and for families to do their pharmacy shopping. Like many drugstores of the day, it’s got a counter where customers can get milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and other treats. The only problem for Maybree is local crime boss Johnny Howard. Howard and his gang run the town and extort ‘protection money’ from all of the businesses. As if the extortion weren’t enough, the gang wants to make Maybree’s drugstore a place for selling pornography. This Maybree refuses to do. Much to Howard’s surprise, other business owners in the area, who are fed up with the crime gang, stand by Maybree and help him protect his store. Desperate to keep his respect, Howard and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan. She’ll go to the drugstore disguised as a teen. As she’s sitting at the counter, she’ll use a straw to shoot poison at Maybree, killing him and getting him out of Howard’s way. Things don’t go as expected, though, when a natural human response takes over. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories will know that drugstores make several appearances in that series. They’re used as places to make telephone calls, have a meal, meet people and get an ice cream soda.

Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues introduces us to Phryne Fisher. Originally from Australia, she’s been living in London. One evening, an acquaintance, Colonel Harper, asks Phryne to visit his daughter Lydia, who now lives in Melbourne, and see whether she’s all right. It seems from her letters that she’s not in good health, and that her husband may be responsible for that. Phryne agrees and travels to Melbourne. In the course of finding out the truth about Lydia, she unearths a cocaine ring operating in the area. It’s not long before she discovers that the nexus of the ring is a pharmacy in a seedy part of town. So one night, she and her friend Bert Johnson visit the pharmacy to find out for themselves what’s going on there. She knows that she won’t learn anything from just going in well-dressed, and asking questions in an educated accent. So, she pretends to be a very different sort of woman:

‘Those pink powders for pale people,’ she finished, and held out her ten shilling note. The man nodded, and exchanged her note for a slip of pink paper, embossed with the title ‘Peterson’s pink powders for pale people’ and containing a small quantity of the requisite stuff. Phryne nodded woozily to him and found her way back to Bert.’

It turns out that that visit to the pharmacy provides an important clue.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has discovered that a local hospital has been in collusion with three pharmacists. Pharmacists sometimes receive a courtesy fee when they schedule their customers for appointments with specialists. Vianello has learned that three pharmacists have been scheduling ‘phantom patients’ in exchange for extra money. Vianello and his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, are looking into the matter when there’s a break-in at a pharmacy that adds a whole new dimension to the case.

You might not think about it much, unless you’re not feeling well or you run out of tissues. But pharmacies are an integral part of our lives, even with today’s online ordering. And they can add interesting layers to a crime story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, John D. MacDonald, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Collins, Rex Stout

20 responses to “I Went Down to the Chelsea Drugstore*

  1. I don’t use drugstores often nowadays, but I remember fondly the drugstores of my childhood. With soda fountains and a great smell. Some great suggestions here, Margot.

  2. There was an old-fashioned drugstore with a soda fountain in the little town close to my mom and dad’s home. It did have a special smell–kind of a combination of wood and floor wax, perfume samplers, rubbing alcohol and chocolate. It was dark and cozy, and the cherry ice cream sodas were wonderful. If any crimes were committed there, I never heard about them.

    • Oh, Pat, it sounds wonderful! I can just imagine the creak of the seats, the soda jerk’s smile, the whole thing. I’m glad there were no crimes committed there as far as you know. It would spoil it…

  3. Col

    I’m sure I’ve read and seen a few pharmacy scenes where they are the target of robberies, for the quantities of drugs they stock……the desperate junkie usually stealing bottles of unknown pills randomly and gorging on them like sweets.

    • That’s true, Col. There are a lot of stories where a pharmacy is the target of a break-in. And yes, sometimes it’s a desperate junkie who’s responsible – and sometimes it’s someone with another motive, who makes it look like the work of a junkie. Either way, it can be an effective scenario.

  4. Margot, you mentioned how pharmacies differ across cultures. In India, we don’t call them drugstores as they do in your part of the world. Here, they are known as “Chemists and General Stores” and they sell medicines along with other assorted stuff including cosmetics, beverages, and even stationery. Some chemists are open day and night. The ones close to my place offer free home delivery.

    • Oh, that’s very interesting, Prashant! It sounds as though the chemists where you live sell much the same sorts of things (of course, with some differences) but have a different name. It’s fascinating how there are those differences and yet similarities.

  5. I never thought about using a pharmacy in a story, but you’re right; they are a huge part of our lives. When I lived in So. NH we had a quaint apothecary designed as if you traveled back in time. They mixed their own medicines, creams, lotions…and offered tea and coffee while you wait. The only thing missing was the ice cream (soda) station. Their compounds were amazing too! What I’d give to have a bottle of their lotion now. They added crushed muscle relaxers and healing agents (depending on the type of lotion; all were different) so the lotion did a lot more than renew dry skin. Also, they made dog medicine for all kinds of ailments–and they worked, too! Fabulous little store. Sadly, Walgreens offered them millions to close so they wouldn’t have to compete, and it was too much money for the owner to refuse. What a shame.

    • Oh, that is a shame, Sue! It sounds like such a great store! And how terrific that they made their own products; there’s a lot to be said for that hand-made, personal touch. And even better that the products worked. That’s definitely a sad consequence of the bigger chains taking over the small business; you lose those wonderful individual businesses.

  6. I’m like Col…I was thinking about how pharmacies are targets these days. I’m tall, but I can barely see over the counters in some of them now!

    • Things have definitely changed in that way, haven’t they, Elizabeth? Pharmacies really have become targets. There are even some where they have plexiglass (or some other sort of protection) between the customer and the people behind the counter.

  7. I remember Boots the Chemist which my Mum used to visit had big glass bottles in the window which used to fascinate me long before I realised that they were items that used to be regularly seen in pharmacies.

  8. Some interesting examples, Margot, and such an interesting topic, too. I keep thinking you must surely run out of subjects, but you never do! One to add to your list: Harry Kemelman’s excellent Wednesday The Rabbi Got Wet has a mystery that centres around a drugstore and the wrong pills being dispensed.

    • Thank you very much, Christine 🙂 – I’m glad you enjoy what you see here. And thank you do for reminding us of that great Rabbi David Small series. That one’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post. I absolutely must spotlight one of those books. Soon.

  9. Patti Abbott

    Yes, drugs used to be the least of it. And although they are huge now the best feature is missing-the food counters.

  10. When I was younger I was always fascinated by the US drugstores in films and books – they were so different from the UK ones! I was first mystified, and then delighted, by the idea that you could go to the drugstore to get an icecream or a milkshake. Our ‘chemists’ shops in England seemed very dull in comparison….

    • It is interesting the way that business has developed differently in different countries, Moira. There is something to the personal service you can get at a traditional chemist’s. I remember thinking how lovely it was to get that sort of service when I stopped in a older UK chemist’s once. On the other hand, there is something to sitting at a drugstore counter with a malted or a milkshake or other treat. Interestingly, it’s not that easy to find an old-style drugstore with food counter any more. They’re still there, but the big chains have put paid to most of them.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s