You 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.