Small ShopsIn 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Garry Disher, Kerry Greenwood

24 responses to “Cornershop*

  1. I always think first of the Thyme and Season Herb Shop owned by China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert’s protagonist.

  2. Margot: In The Night Bell by Inger Ash Wolfe, the latest book to feature Hazel Micallef, there is a significant exploration of the impact upon Hazel of her father’s modest clothing store including her experiences working in the store as a teenager 50 years earlier.

    • Oh, that sounds interesting, Bill. And it’s a really good reminder (for which thanks) that I need to read that one. I’ve not gotten to it quite yet, and I appreciate your reminder.

  3. I’ve never heard the phrase ‘mom and pop shops’ before Margot so that’s another piece of cultural linguistics you’ve introduced me to. Even in true crime the corner shop often has a place in the story – in The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale the boys bought sweets from the local shop – I was trying to work out if it was the one my Gt Gt Grandfather owned in the area by the 1901 census but sadly I don’t think it was.

    • Oh, Cleo, what a connection that would have made between you and the crime in that story if it had been the same shop! Even so, that’s a good example of exactly the sort of shop I had in mind. And now you’ve reminded me that a small sweet shop figures in Nicci French’s Blue Monday. A young girl and her sister are on their way home from school. The older sister and a friend go into the shop for some sweets; the younger one disappears. Thanks for the reminder of that.

  4. Not a shop, but years ago I read a story that revolved around a rural post office. In several small, rural towns the post office is often a gathering place where you can sit and chat over coffee. In the story, someone murdered the post master, sending the usual group to investigate on their own. It was a great story, but it’s been so many years I can’t recall the title.

    • Oh, interesting, Sue! And it reminds me of Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen series, which is set in small-town Virginia. When the series begins, the protagonist is the postmistress for the town. So she sees and hears a lot of what goes on. And you’re right; it’s quite the local gathering place.

  5. Tim

    I would add to your honor roll by mentioning the small businesses in Louise Penny’s novels. _Still Life_ is the place to begin touring the businesses and homes. Enjoy the painting!

  6. While it’s not crime fiction, I always thought the store in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was the heart of the movie (or book, if anyone’s read the book). It’s so dusty and small and seems terribly normal, which is then contrasted with the bright, shiny mega mart that Gilbert goes to for a birthday cake. You stop and think, “Whoa, it’s like the people living in Endora are from another time.”

    • It may not be crime fiction, GtL, but it’s a good example of the small shop. You’re right, too, about the contrast between that store and the mega-mart. There’s an entirely different atmosphere, isn’t there?

  7. Col

    I’ll have to move Disher’s book closer to the top of the pile!

  8. I’ve been meaning to read the Catherine O’Flynn book for ages, and with you and Chrissie Poulson both recommending it I have finally downloaded it!

    • So glad to hear that, Moira! I truly believe you won’t regret it. That’s one of my all-time top reads. Everyone’s different, of course, but I really do hope you’ll be glad you read it.

  9. tracybham

    I do like smaller, more personal shops like you describe, and there are so few of them nowadays. I have been meaning to get to the O’Flynn book, but you know how that goes.

    • I sure do, Tracy! Still, I do highly (highly) recommend it if you get the chance. And I know what you mean about smaller shops, too. There’s something special about them.

  10. I love a good corner shop to rummage in. So much intrigue. My faves have to be village hardware stores and bric-a-brac/antique shops. Thanks once again for mentioning Blake.Elroy Tuvey’s antique shop makes a come back in my current WIP.

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