And He Wasn’t Into Selling Door to Door*

Door to DoorDespite the prevalence of online shopping and cars, some companies still have a door-to-door sales program. And of course, religious groups do that, too. So do fund-raising groups. If you think about it, knocking at a stranger’s door has real risk attached to it. Still, people do it anyway, and all sorts of things can happen.

They certainly happen in crime fiction. Oh, and before I go on, you’ll notice that this post won’t refer to the door-to-door efforts the police make when they investigate a crime. That’s another post in and of itself.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, we are introduced to Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a World War I veteran and door-to-door stocking salesman. He’s a bit odd, even eccentric. But he’s soft-spoken and certainly not the violent type. He doesn’t cause trouble for his landlady, and doesn’t call much attention to himself. His perspective is one of those shared in this novel, in which Hercule Poirot solves a seemingly unrelated set of murders. The only things that really link them are a set of cryptic warnings Poirot receives before each one, and the fact that an ABC railway guide is found near each body.

In Rex Stout’s novella Kill Now, Pay Later, Nero Wolfe gets involved the case of Peter ‘Pete’ Vassos, a door-to-door shoeshiner. Wolfe has a soft spot for Vassos, in part because he does a good job. Archie Goodwin likes him for the same reason. There’s also the fact that Vassos is the only one who really pays attention to Wolfe’s commentary on the classics. So Wolfe’s included to be helpful when Vassos comes to him with a problem. It seems he went into the room of another regular customer, Dennis Ashby, but found the room empty. He left the room and went outside, only to find Ashby’s body on the pavement. Unfortunately for Vassos, he was seen going into the room by receptionist Frances Cox. Now Vassos is a very likely murder suspect. Wolfe and Archie Goodwin look into the matter and find that more than one other person could have wanted Ashby dead.

In David Liss’ The Ethical Assassin, we meet seventeen-year-old Lem Atlick. He’s trying to save up money to go to Columbia University; and, since his parents won’t pay, he’s taking whatever employment he can. That employment turns out to be door-to-door encyclopaedia sales, and to Lem’s surprise, he’s good at it. One hot day, he’s doing the rounds of a Florida trailer park when he comes to the home of a woman named Karen and her husband, nicknamed Bastard. While he’s talking to them, a man named Melford Kean comes into the trailer and shoots both of Lem’s customers. He hadn’t expected there to be a witness but he takes care of the problem neatly. Lem is faced with two choices: either he can keep quiet about what happened, or Kean will go to the police, and he’ll end up taking the fall for the killings. Lem chooses the former and ends up getting drawn into Kean’s strange world. Is he an activist? A vigilante? Something more sinister?

Several religious groups send representatives from door to door, and we see that in crime fiction, too. In Anna Jaquiery’s The Lying Down Room, which takes place partly in Paris, we learn that four women, Isabelle Dufour, Elisabeth Guillou, Marie Latour and Irina Volkoff, have al lodged complaints at their local police stations. Each has said that two religious evangelists have come to their doors, bothering them. Of course, religious evangelists come to a lot of people’s doors, but these particular two have unsettled the women. It’s not taken overly seriously until Isabelle Dufour is found murdered. Commandant Serge Morel and his team do consider the victim’s family members as they look for the killer. But they’re also interested in the evangelists. After all, they might be witnesses, if nothing else. Then, Elisabeth Guillou is found dead, killed in the same way as Dufour. Now the search for the evangelists becomes more intense, as Morel believes strongly that they are the key to the case. But they seem to have disappeared. So Morel and the team have to find them. And that will involve tracing a history that goes back a few decades.

In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, Catherine Ross and Sally Henry, knock at a stranger’s door (well, a near-stranger) for quite a different reason. One New Year’s Eve, they’re coming back from a party when they happen to pass Hillhead, a house that’s owned by Magnus Tait. He has the reputation of being ‘soft in the head,’ and neither girl has ever actually interacted with him. Sally, though, has heard of him and been warned away. Catherine dares her to knock on the door, though, just to wish a lonely man a happy new year. Against her will, Sally agrees and the two girls go to the door and knock. A surprised Tait invites them in and they all toast the new year. When Catherine is found dead not many days later, Tait becomes the most likely suspect. But DI Jimmy Perez isn’t convinced that Tait’s guilty. So he investigates more deeply, and finds that more than one person might have wanted to kill Catherine.

You see? Going door to door can certainly have its risks, for both the person who knocks and the one who opens the door. Oh, wait – excuse me a moment. I think someone’s knocking…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s 4 + 20.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Anna Jaquiery, David Liss, Rex Stout

28 responses to “And He Wasn’t Into Selling Door to Door*

  1. Warning: sneaky and subtle plot spoilers lurk behind the door in this posting. Nevertheless, you’ve again added to my “must read” list. I’ll give Christie another attempt (failed previously) even though I might now know too much.

  2. Either opening the door to strangers or vice versa would be worrisome to me, but certainly a situation that can lead to problems. Great examples. I love the Rex Stout novella you mentioned.

  3. An interesting post, Margot. It made me think about pizza delivery guys or other people who deliver to your door.

    • You’ve got a good point, Mason! Pizza delivery can be a very dangerous business too. As can flower delivery or just about anything else that gets brought to a door.

  4. Must admit, ABC was the first example that came to my mind, but some great other ones here Margot and must re-read the Stout as I had forgotten that completely – thanks.

    • I know what you mean about the Stout, Sergio. I think some of those stories really are worth a re-read! And thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  5. Col

    I can’t recall recounting the theme in my own reading. I’ve seen it visually in films the odd time, where the gang of kids dare each other to knock on the door of the village crazy woman, nothing good usually comes of it.
    I’m tempted by the Liss book you’ve mentioned – onto the list it goes! Grrr…

    • I think you might like that Liss, Col. And you’re right; there is that great setup of kids daring each other to knock at the door. You just know that one’s not going to go well…

  6. Kathy D.

    And Eva Dolan’s third book “After You Die,” has one suspect in a murder who is a certain type of agitator/stalker, first watches from his car, then comes to the door. How far will he go to push his opinion? Where is the line crossed between opinion and aggression?

  7. I’m still waiting for the book where the Avon lady is a killer – or perhaps a Tupperware party turns murderous in the suburbs…
    And then of course there are the books which are deliberately misleading, like ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ – where there is no one but ‘fate’ knocking at the door…

  8. Margot, I have probably come across this theme in my reading but I can’t recall any examples, save for the midnight knock that everyone dreads in real life. “The Ethical Assassin” is such a cheeky title for a book.

    • It is a cheeky title, isn’t it, Prashant? But there’s a reason for it; I’ll just say that, for fear of spoiling the story. And yes, that midnight knock can be a source of real dread…

  9. The first thing that came to mind was Hotel California by the Eagles. No idea why. Maybe because of this line: “you can check in anytime you want, but you can never leave.” Raven Black piques my interest.

  10. The doorbell ringing works particularly well in films I think, that moment where everyone looks at each other. Or the raised tension, and then it’s just the pizza delivery, but then just when you relax something terrible happens…
    And I must just mention the Rex Stout I recently read: it doesn’t really fit this category, but it was called The Doorbell Rang: the reader only finds out why on the very last page.

    • Yes, that’s an interesting title, isn’t it, Moira? And you’re right about the doorbell ringing in film. It breaks into the action, and can add to the rise and fall of tension.

  11. In real life crime – many an unsuspecting person (usually a woman) answers an ad – to buy something – with disastrous results. In WA we had the notorious Bernies – husband and wife killers – who sometimes lured young women to their house (once by selling second hand tyres I seem to recall) They were monsters. We are inherently trusting I think….

    • Oh, that is frightening, Carol! We’ve had incidents in the US, too, where people were ‘selling’ things online as a cover for luring victims. It is scary how trusting people can be, isn’t it?

  12. Rex Stout’s novella Kill Now, Pay Later, Nero Wolfe gets involved the case of Peter ‘Pete’ Vassos, a door-to-door shoeshiner.
    Imagine…a door-to-door shoeshiner!
    Other situations involve those of open house real estate agents. I have no title in mind, just an unspecific memory of a real case.

    • Interesting case, Carol, about the real estate agent. If you remember more details, I hope you’ll let me know. And in the meantime, yes Kill Now, Pay Later is a great story. Hard to imagine a door-to-door shoe shiner in these times!

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