Sometimes they’re called jumble sales. They also go by names such as yard sales, tag sales, boot sales, and garage sales. They have other names, too. Whatever you call them, they’re opportunities for people who are getting rid of things to sell them to people who may want those things. Sometimes the proceeds go to a charity; other times, they’re private sales, with the seller keeping any proceeds.
You never know what you’ll find at such sales, really. Sometimes it’s nothing worth much. But there are times when you find something really special. And sales like that can be great places to find things like vintage clothes and jewelry, collectibles and so on. And they can be fun, too. So it’s little wonder that so many people make a weekend hobby of going the rounds of whatever sales there are in the area.
This kind of sale can make a useful context for a crime novel, too. There are all sorts of possibilities for clues and ‘red herrings,’ and motives for murder as well. And with a group of disparate people, you never know what conflicts might arise.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny at the request of Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. One of the residents, James Bentley, has been convicted of murdering his landlady, and on good evidence. But Spence isn’t convinced of Bentley’s guilt, so he asks Poirot to look into the matter. As he settles into Broadhinny, Poirot is told about the village’s Bring and Buy sales that are held at the village hall. He also learns that Mrs. McGinty was murdered in November, after the autumn Bring and Buy, but before the Christmas event. That fact turns out to be significant as Poirot works to find out who would have been in a position to commit the crime.
Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Wasn’t There takes place in the fictional town of Pickax, ‘four hundred miles north of nowhere.’ In one plot thread of the novel, we learn that beloved local GP Dr. Hal Goodwinter has died, and that his daughter, Melinda, has inherited his house and its effects. She doesn’t plan to live in the house, so she puts the contents up for sale. Later, she’ll sell the property itself. The event draws thousands of people, and the town has all it can do to manage the logistics and safety issues. So it’s not until later that anyone learns that some professional thieves used to sale as a cover and distraction for their own plans.
Hallie Ephron’s Never Tell a Lie takes a darker look at yard sales. David and Ivy Rose have purchased a Victorian home, where they plan to start their own family. As a matter of fact, Ivy is eight months pregnant with their first child. To make more room, and clear things out, they decide to host a yard sale one November day. As anyone who’s ever held such a sale can attest, people arrive early and the place is soon crowded. One of those people is Melinda ‘Mindy’ White, whom the Roses knew in school, and who is heavily pregnant herself. Mindy never really fit in in high school, and she’s still a bit of an ‘oddball.’ When the sale is over, everyone leaves, but Mindy never makes it home. In fact, no-one can remember seeing her after the sale. When she’s officially reported missing, the police investigate, and one of their first stops is the Rose’s home. David and Ivy claim to know nothing about her disappearance, but there’s evidence to suggest they may know much more than they’re saying. The truth about Mindy’s disappearance turns out to go a lot deeper than a case of someone who wandered off during a yard sale.
Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at an ultra-exclusive, gated community outside Buenos Aires. Called Cascade Heights Country Club, it’s usually called The Heights. Every potential resident is thoroughly ‘vetted,’ and only the very wealthy can afford to live there. They all have domestic staff, shop only in exclusive stores, and send their children to the ‘right schools.’ It’s that kind of place. Everything changes when Argentina goes through an economic crisis (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of the 2000s). People are losing jobs, and no-one’s lifestyle is secure any more. One night, there’s a tragedy, and we see as the book develops what has led to it. One of the ‘things people do’ in this community is to give to the ‘right’ charities and do the ‘right things’ to help the needy. To accomplish this, some of the residents create a charitable group called ‘The Ladies of the Heights.’ This group decides to hold a jumble sale in aid of a local children’s free meal centre. The sale is duly held and the money donated. Admittedly, the jumble sale and the preparations for it aren’t the cause of the tragedy. But they do highlight the social divisions that play a key role in the story, and they show the attitudes that also play an important role.
And then there’s David Houswright’s Unidentified Woman #15. Former Minneapolis police officer-turned-occasional-PI Rushmore McKenzie is witness one night to the attempted murder of a young woman. McKenzie rescues her, but she is badly injured and is rushed to the nearest hospital. Her physical wounds heal, but she’s lost her memory. St. Paul Police Commissioner Bobby Dunstan believes she may be in danger, so he asks McKenzie (who’s a former colleague and friend) to take her in for a short time. This McKenzie agrees to do. All goes well enough for a short time, but then, the young woman disappears. Now, McKenzie and the police have to find the woman (whose name they still do not know) and try to find out who was targeting her. As it turns out, this case is connected to another case, which involves stolen merchandise being sold at a series of garage sales. It’s an interesting way to weave the garage sale tradition into the larger plot.
Of course, not all jumble, yard, garage or tag sales are dangerous. Sometimes you can find fantastic bargains, and who knows? You may find something priceless if you keep your eyes open. But perhaps it’s just as well to keep your wits about you…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Granddaddy’s Where I’m Anymore.