As this is posted, it’s 101 years since the opening of the first self-service market (a Piggly Wiggly store located in Memphis). Since that time, of course, supermarkets have become fixtures in many places, and there is a good reason for that. It’s a lot more efficient to buy all of one’s food products (and often a lot more, too) in one place. Supermarket chains can buy in bulk, too, and that can reduce prices for the consumer.
Because they’re such integral parts of today’s shopping landscape, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are a lot of supermarkets in crime fiction. They’re really effective settings for meetings between characters, for creating a sense of setting and atmosphere, and more. And they can even be suspenseful.
But they haven’t always been welcome. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Miss Marple investigates the murder of Heather Badcock, who is poisoned during a fête. The victim and her husband live in the then-new council housing in the village of St. Mary Mead, and the that’s only one of the changes that’s come to the town. The supermarket is another. Here’s what Miss Hartnall, one of the villagers, says about it:
‘‘All these great packets of breakfast cereal instead of cooking a child a proper breakfast of bacon and eggs. And you’re expected to take a basket round yourself and go looking for things – it takes a quarter of an hour sometimes to find all one wants – and usually made up of inconvenient sizes, too much or too little. And then a long queue waiting to pay as you go out. Most tiring.’’
Admittedly, the new supermarket isn’t the reason for Heather Badcock’s murder. But Miss Hartnall offers an interesting perspective on this major change in shopping.
Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives takes place mostly in the fictional small town of Stepford, Connecticut. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their two children have moved there from New York City, in order to take advantage of lower taxes, less expensive housing, and better schools. All goes well at first. But Joanna soon notices that none of the other women in town seem to have outside interests; they all seem to be completely involved in their homes and domesticity. One day, for instance, she’s at Center Market, the local supermarket:
‘Joanna looked…into the cart of another woman going slowly past her. My God, she thought, they even fill their carts neatly. And she looked at her own: a jumble of boxes and cans and jars. A guilty impulse to put it in order prodded her, but I’m damned if I will, she thought…’
At first, it just seems like an oddity. But slowly, Joanna and her new best friend, Bobbie Markowe, begin to suspect that something is very, very wrong in Stepford. And they turn out to be right.
In a similar vein, science fiction writer Zack Walker decides to move his family to the suburb of Valley Forest Estates in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker’s convinced that the suburbs are safer, and persuades his wife, Sarah, to fall in with his plans. Things don’t work out as he thought, though. For one thing, the new home they’ve bought needs several repairs. When Walker goes to the sales office of the housing development, he witnesses a loud argument between one of the sales executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, he finds Spender’s body near a local creek. Now, he’s unwittingly mixed up in that murder. As if that’s not enough, he and Sarah go to a grocery store one day. They’re leaving the store, when he sees a handbag left behind in a shopping cart. Thinking it’s his wife’s, Walker takes it and stashes it in the car. Then, Sarah produces her own handbag. Walker’s decisions about what to do next draw him even more deeply into some dark things going on in Valley Forest Estates.
Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire finds an innovative use for a local supermarket in Death Without Company. In one small plot thread of the novel, he needs to find enough people to serve as jurors for an upcoming series of hearings. So, he instructs his deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, to wait outside the supermarket and ‘collect’ shoppers to serve as talis jurors:
‘I watched as my…deputy accosted a middle-aged man…copied down information from his driver’s license and informed him that he needed to get over to the courthouse pronto or be faced with contempt of court. ‘Well, there’s another notch on my Glock…’’ ‘Hey, there are worse places for stakeouts. At least we’ve got plenty of supplies.’’
It’s a very practicable solution to the jury-pool problem, even if it does interrupt the day for several shoppers.
And then there’s Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder. In that novel, Malin Andersson, her husband Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel, return to their home on the Swedish island of Fårö after a two-month absence. When they get to the house, they see that the tenants who’ve been staying there have made a huge mess. What’s worse, several family photographs have been deliberately disfigured. It’s unsettling, and Malin calls the police. There’s not much they can do at first, other than take down the details, but police detective Fredrik Bronan and his team promise to look into the matter. Then one day, Malin is in the local supermarket, when she gets the strong feeling that she’s being followed. She looks around quickly, but doesn’t see anyone. And the store employees aren’t much help. But this seems related to the damage to the house, and to a previous incident in which Malin noticed a stranger watching her as she dropped her children off at their schools. Then, other, more ominous things happen. Now, Bronan and his team take this threat seriously. They’ll have to find out who’s targeted the family and why before anyone is seriously hurt or worse.
See what I mean? Supermarkets are woven into our lives. So it’s little wonder they’re also woven into crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Clash.