Been Caught Stealing*

One of the big challenges that a lot of retailers face is shoplifting. I got to thinking of this after I read a fascinating post by K.B. Owen, author of the Concordia Wells historical mysteries. Her post is an interesting reminder that shoplifting has been around for a long time. It’s well worth the read. And so are the Concordia Wells stories, so you’ll want to try them.

Shoplifting shows up in a lot of crime fiction, as you can imagine. Sometimes, it’s a sub-plot; sometimes, it’s a major part of the main plot. Either way, it’s interesting to see how it’s been treated over the years.

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Veiled Lady, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Lady Millicent Castle Vaughn. She says she is being blackmailed over an indiscreet letter she wrote several years earlier. The blackmailer – a Mr. Lavington – will send her letter to her wealthy, titled fiancé if she doesn’t pay. She wants Poirot to try to get the letter for her. Poirot manages that feat in a very creative way. And, he and Hastings find that the letter is connected to the audacious daylight robbery of an upmarket jewelry store.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe begins as Perry Mason and Della Street take refuge from a rainstorm in a department store. There, they witness a store security officer arrest Sarah Breel for shoplifting. It turns out to be a regular habit of hers; so usually, her niece, Virginia Trent, goes shopping with her to prevent any incidents. But this time, the two got separated for just enough time for Aunt Sarah to fall back into her usual pattern. Mason gets involved in this family’s problems when Virginia Trent comes to him with an even more difficult situation. Her uncle is a gem expert, who buys, sells, cleans, and custom-cuts gems on commission. When he’s away, Aunt Sarah runs the business, and now, a valuable set of diamonds has gone missing. And there’s every reason to believe she has it. Austin Cullens, the dealer who acted as ‘go-between’ for the diamonds, doesn’t think that Aunt Sarah stole the diamonds, though. Everything changes when Cullens is murdered, and Aunt Sarah becomes the prime suspect. Now, Mason goes to work to find out who the murderer really is, and what happened to the diamonds.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, a police detective named Ames is found dead in a rooming house owned by Johannes Carver. He’s gone to the boardinghouse in the guise of a homeless man to investigate a rash of shoplifting incidents. He’d settled on one of Carver’s lodgers as the guilty party, and was ready to make an arrest. But this case doesn’t turn out to be as simple as a shoplifter who killed a police officer to avoid arrest. This is Carr after all…

The main plot of Martha Grimes’ The Old Contemptibles concerns the Holdsworth family. Inspector Richard Jury meets Jane Holdsworth at a marketplace, and they are drawn to each other. They begin a relationship, but then, Jane is murdered. Jury finds himself a suspect in the killing, but he knows (and so do the rest of us) that he’s not guilty. His friend, Melrose Plant, helps him look into the backgrounds of the other members of the family, to find out which one of them would have wanted the victim dead. And it turns out that there’s more than one possibility. One of the characters we meet in the story is a local shoplifter named Jimmy the Dip. Early in the story, Jury’s at the marketplace where he meets Jane, when he sees Jimmy, prowling for opportunities. In fact, he actually witnesses Jimmy ‘accidentally’ bumping into a customer who’s just made a purchase. He decides not to make the arrest. For one thing, Jimmy seems to make apologies, so it’s not clear he actually stole anything. For another, Jimmy is a valuable source of information on other criminals who,

‘…did more than just work the Passage.’

Finally, it’s not that Jury condones shoplifting; he certainly doesn’t.  But he does have a soft spot for Jimmy.

And then there’s Sue Grafton’s V is For Vengeance. In it, Marvin Striker hires PI Kinsey Millhone to find out the truth about his fiancée’s death. It seems that Audrey Vance (Striker’s fiancée) committed suicide, and that’s what’s on the official report. But Striker doesn’t think that’s the case, and he wants Millhone to investigate. She soon learns that the dead woman was a shoplifter and professional thief. In fact, she believes that Striker is wrong, and that his fiancée was conning him. The search for answers leads to a Los Vegas ‘private banker’ and a wealthy ‘attorney to the stars’ and his wife.

Even though it doesn’t usually end in violence, shoplifting costs retailers millions a year. And, of course, that cost ultimately gets passed on to the rest of us. So, in real life, it’s little wonder that shops want to do everything they can to reduce ‘shrink.’ In crime fiction, though, shoplifting can be an interesting sub-plot, or add an interesting layer to a character.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jane’s Addiction.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, Martha Grimes, Sue Grafton

14 responses to “Been Caught Stealing*

  1. Fab post, Margot! I’m flattered that a post of mine was a topic inspiration, and thanks so much for the shout out! I thought I had read every Christie story out there, but I don’t remember coming across The Veiled Lady. I’ll have to look that up!

    • I’m grateful for the inspiration, Kathy (and the kind words), and happy to spread the word about your writing. The Veiled Lady is a short story that was first published in her collection, Poirot’s Early Cases. I read it as part of Poirot Investigates. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Can’t add to your examples tonight, but just taking the opportunity to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving for tomorrow. Have fun! 🍷🍗🍷

  3. Col

    I like the sound of the Perry Mason tale Margot. I’m unlikely to cross paths with it, but I’ll keep an eye out. Enjoy your holiday.

  4. Spade & Dagger

    Hoping you have a restful Thanksgiving Holiday.
    Presumably there are many mystery/crime books based on or around this event too 🙂

  5. Have a great Thanksgiving – hopefully your table doesn’t include any shoplifted goods Margot 😉

  6. That’s true Margot. A relatively minor crime such as shoplifting can often have the nature of the butterfly effect when it comes to crime stories…I don’t remember the Veiled Lady story. Ah, time to hit the books again 🙂

  7. I’ve read two different stories where a middle-aged lady goes shoplifiting, and it’s a sign of inner disturbance, and the shop reports back to the husband on a regular basis and is repaid – one was a short story by the excellent Celia Fremlin, and the other was one of Victor Canning’s thrillers, which often contained unexpected moments.
    I think the trope of shoplifting as a problem of troubled older women was quite a common one in the 1960s.

    • I think it was, too, Moira. And you’re reminding me of Patricia Abbott’s excellent Concrete Angel which tells of a woman who grew up in the fifties and sixties, and did more than her share of shoplifting. I should have mentioned that one in the post, but did. So I’m glad you brought the topic up. I’m also glad you mentioned both Canning and Fremlin. I’ve not done a spotlight post on either, yet, and I really should.

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