In these days of online shopping and large mega-retailers, it’s really easy to lose sight of the fact that there are still plenty of small businesses and ‘mom and pop shops’ out there. In fact, lots of people prefer them, as they offer personal service in ways that the larger retailers can’t, even if they don’t always have as much selection. And in many areas, they’re the best option (e.g. rural areas where it’s a long way between towns, or heavily populated urban areas, where space is too expensive for large stores).
Small shops can make very effective contexts for a murder mystery, too. Proprietors, customers, and visitors all meet up with each other in a way that can add a layer of interest, and even tension, to a novel. And sometimes they’re gathering places for local residents, so they also offer opportunities for character development and even conflict.
At one time, small ‘mom and pop shops’ were the rule, not the exception. We see that a lot in Agatha Christie’s work. To take just one (of many!) examples, a grocery features in Sad Cypress. In that novel, local GP Dr. Peter Lord asks Hercule Poirot to clear Elinor Carlisle of suspicion of murder. She’s been arrested in connection with the poisoning death of Mary Gerrard, and there is no lack of motive. She had the opportunity, too, as she prepared the sandwiches in which it’s believed the poison was placed. In fact, at her trial, the proprietor of the local grocery testifies that she bought fish paste from him, and commented at the time about the likelihood of its being tainted. Poirot looks into the matter, and discovers that more than one person had a very good motive for murder. Yes, indeed, fans of The ABC Murders.
As larger retailers, shopping malls and the like became popular, small shops sometimes suffered quite a lot. We see this, for instance, in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. At the beginning of that novel (that part takes place in 1984), we are introduced to ten-year-old budding detective Kate Meaney. In fact, she has her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends quite a lot of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, thinking that she’s sure to find plenty of suspicious activity there. She’s content with her life, but her grandmother, Ivy, believes she’d be better off going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate’s friend Adrian Palmer agrees to go along with her for moral support, and both board the bus to the school. When only Adrian returns, a massive search for Kate is launched. But no trace of her is found. Twenty years later, Adrian’s younger sister Lisa, who works at Green Oaks, happens to meet Kurt, a security guard there. They form an awkward sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, return to the past, as the saying goes, and we learn the truth about Kate. The opening of the mall has a serious impact on many of the local businesses, including the newsagent shop owned by Adrian’s father. And one plot thread of the story shows the stark contrast between the local shops (Kate knows and likes just about all of their owners) and the mall shops.
There are still, of course, lots of small ‘mom and pop shops.’ And people continue to open and run them. They’re still there in crime fiction, too. For instance, Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series takes place in rural Absaroka County, Wyoming, where most of the towns are small, and so are the businesses. In Death Without Company, the main plot revolves around the death of Mari Baroja, who lived in the Durant Home for Assisted Living. When it turns out that she was poisoned, Longmire looks into the case. And he discovers that it has connections that go more than fifty years into the past. In one (admittedly small) plot thread, we meet the victim’s granddaughter, Lana. She’s just opened her own bakery, and is trying to make a go of it. She describes herself as
‘…the best kept secret in Durant.’
It’s not an easy life, running one’s own small shop, and Lana doesn’t have a lot of financial ‘padding.’ But she’s a hard worker and a determined one.
Any fan of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series can tell you about the small ‘mom and pop shops’ that occupy part of the Melbourne building where Chapman lives and has her own bakery. Since Chapman narrates the stories, readers get a good look at what it’s like to own and run one’s own small shop. Besides the bakery, there’s (among others) a family restaurant, a chocolatier, and a Wiccan store in the building, each of which is a small enterprise. The shop owners (Chapman among them) take great pride in what they do, and in creating and/or selling the very best products that they can. Among other things, this series shows how much knowledge individual proprietors need to have to open, manage, and succeed with a small shop.
And then there’s Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhause has just been transferred to Tiverton, a small, rural South Australian town. He’s gotten a reputation as a ‘whistleblower,’ and the incident that led to that has basically exiled him from his former station in Adelaide. He hasn’t been in Tiverton long when the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is discovered by the side of a road. Hirsch investigates, beginning with Melia’s family and friends. Melia’s best friend, Gemma Pitcher, works at the general store, so Hirsch goes there to speak to her:
‘The interior was a dim cave. The ceiling, pressed tin, was stalactited with hooks from the days when a shopkeeper would hang it with buckets, watering cans, coils of rope, and paired boots. Refrigerator cases lined a side wall, shallow crates of withered the back, and in the vast middle ground were aisles of rickety shelving, stacked with anything from tin peaches to tampons. The sole cash register was next to the entrance, next to ranks of daily newspapers and weekly and monthly magazines and a little bookcase thumbtacked with a sign, LIBRARY.’
As it turns out, Gemma knows some helpful information about what happened to Melia. When Hirsch finally gets the chance to speak to her, he gets some valuable clues.
There are, of course, many more examples of ‘mom and pop shops’ in crime fiction. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series features the Patchwork Cottage, a small quilting supply store. And some of D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington stories take place in the village of Tuesbury, home to several small shops. There are lots more, too. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Babybird.