For many years, there’ve been laws and policies that are designed to protect consumers. Whether they sell food, homes, or just about anything else, companies are usually bound by legal requirements to make their products and services safe. It wasn’t always that way, of course. But today, most countries require that consumers be protected from danger and fraud. And there are watchdog groups, government agencies, and others whose job it is to make sure that happens.
Consumer protection plays a big role in people’s lives. Whenever you buy food, take medication, apply for a loan, or get in your car, the company providing the product or service is supposed to take measures to assure your safety. It doesn’t always happen, but that’s supposed to be the goal. Consumer protection is an issue in crime fiction, too. There are all sorts of possibilities for an author when you’ve got companies who are supposed to take safety measures (that may be costly), and consumers who may be at risk (or may be trying to take advantage of a company).
In Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, for instance, we are introduced to activist Marco Ribetti. He and his group claim that Venice’s famous glass blowing factories are disposing of toxic waste by dumping it into the local water supply. One of those factories is owned by Ribetti’s father-in-law, Giovanni de Cal. But that doesn’t stop him trying to raise consumer awareness and force the factories to stop what they’re doing. When he is arrested at one protest, Ribetti asks his friend, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello, to help him. Vianello agrees, and gets his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to help arrange for Ribetti’s release. Not long afterwards, there’s a death at de Cal’s factory. Giorgio Tassini, the night watchman, is killed in what looks at first like a terrible accident. But Brunetti and his team find that this death was no accident. Someone is willing to go to great lengths to protect an industry’s secrets.
There’s a similar theme in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut is the owner of a Florida agribusiness. Consumer protection laws prevent him from legally adding toxins to the local water supply. But that doesn’t stop him. Still, he doesn’t want to deal with lawsuits, bad publicity, and so on. So, he hires self-styled marine biologist Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone to ensure that water samples taken from the company’s property show no toxins. Perrone, who hasn’t much in the way of scruples, has developed a technique that ‘cleans’ water samples, so that even if the water isn’t safe, the sample won’t show it. When his wife, Joey, begins to suspect what he’s doing, he decides that he’ll have to kill her. So, he takes her on what he pretends is an anniversary cruise. During the trip, he throws her overboard. The only thing is, Joey is a former champion swimmer. So, she survives and is rescued. And that’s just the beginning of Chaz’ problems…
Robin Cook’s medical thriller Toxin features Dr. Kim Reggis, a well-known cardiac surgeon. One evening, he takes his daughter, Becky, to eat at a local fast-food place called The Onion Ring. When she contracts an infection from a particularly virulent strain of E. Coli bacteria, Reggis and his estranged wife, Tracy, rush her to the hospital where he works. The staff do everything they can, but Becky dies. Devastated by his daughter’s death, Reggis is determined to find out how the bacteria got into the supply of meat that The Onion Ring uses for its food. After all, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is supposed to be inspecting the meat that leaves The Onion Ring’s supplier, as per the law. He starts asking questions, and before long, finds far greater danger than he thought he would find.
There’s a different sort of consumer protection discussed in Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. In one plot thread, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne is working on an exposé of dubious land developer Denny Graham. If Thorne’s facts are right, he’s been luring investors with promises of luxury homes and a dream retirement. But when Thorne visits one of those ‘luxury estates,’ she finds that the land is completely undeveloped. She also finds that several people have lost their savings in this scheme. There are laws intended to protect consumers from this kind of fraud. But most people are not exactly happy about admitting they’ve been duped, so Thorne has a lot of trouble getting people to talk to her. What’s more, Graham has a lot of influence, so there’s also intimidation involved. Then, Thorne’s boss pulls her away from that story and asks her to do another. The 30th anniversary of South Africa’s very controversial rugby tour of New Zealand is coming up, and Thorne’s boss wants her to find a new angle on that story. At first, she resists, thinking that there’s not much new to say. Besides, she wants to follow the Denny Graham story as far as it will go. But then, she learns of an unsolved murder that took place after one of the long-ago rugby matches…
There’s a different view of consumer protection in Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police, which introduces his sleuth, Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. In one sub-plot of the novel, the people of the town of St. Denis, where Bruno is based, are faced with a problem. They’ve been holding their regular Market Day for a very long time. And a big part of Market Day is the delicious food on offer. Understandably, it’s important that the food be carefully prepared and served, so that no-one is sickened. And there are EU health inspectors who are responsible for visiting Market Day operations to be sure that everything is done according to the EU health code. And therein lies the problem. The residents don’t want outsiders coming in to tell them how to do what they’ve been doing for generations. The EU, meanwhile, insists that health regulations be followed. Bruno has to find a way to keep the people he serves from causing trouble, while at the same time support their pride in what they do. And he has a very clever way of doing that.
In general, we’re probably a lot safer because of consumer protection efforts. And most people don’t want polluted water, bacteria-infested food, or fraudulent loans. So, it’s little wonder that consumer protection is a part of our lives – and a part of our crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Red Lights Flash’s For Your Safety.