If you look at the ‘photo, you’ll probably be able to tell that it was taken in a hotel room (I’m at a conference as this is posted). But do you know which hotel? That’s a sort of trick question, really, because a lot of hotels aren’t really distinctive any more. They may have different logos, or other sorts of branding, but the major hotel chains are really quite similar in a lot of ways.
And it’s not just hotels. Many restaurants, shops, and other facilities, especially if they are part of a large chain, are almost generic in nature. That’s arguably a trend, since the larger chains have become more prevalent, whether it’s bookshops or places to have pancakes.
As with most social trends, you see that development in crime fiction, too. For example, much of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun takes places at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. This hotel has a long history, and by the time Hercule Poirot visits it, it’s got a fine reputation. It’s a unique sort of place with its own atmosphere. And in this novel, it becomes a crime scene when one of the guests, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered nearby. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, is the most likely suspect. And it’s not surprising, considering the victim’s not-too-well-hidden affair with another guest. But Marshall is soon proven innocent, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the culprit. It might be interesting to consider the sort of story this would be if it took place in one of today’s more generic hotels.
Ellery Queen’s the French Powder Mystery takes place at French’s Department Store. The novel was published in 1930, before department stores were taken over by large chains. This particular store is owned by Cyrus French, who’s made it a real success. Then one day, the body of French’s wife, Winnifred, is discovered in one of the store’s window displays. Inspector Richard Queen investigates, and, of course, his son, Ellery, has quite a hand in the search for the truth. As the Queens, Sergeant Velie, and the rest of the team look into the case, we get a look at what department stores were like when they were owned by individuals. French’s is distinctive, and it’s interesting to see how that individuality comes through.
The change from the individual/unique to the more generic/mass-produced is one of the themes of Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. The story beings in 1984, when Kate Meaney is ten years old. She’s growing up in a rather dreary Midlands town, but she’s content. In fact, she’s a budding detective with her own private agency, Falcon Investigations. A new mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, has opened, and Kate is sure that it will be a hotbed of criminal activity. So, she spends quite a lot of time there. Her grandmother, Ivy, thinks the girl would be better off going away to school, so she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate reluctantly agrees to go, and her friend Adrian Palmer goes along for moral support. Tragically, only Adrian returns. Despite a thorough search, no trace of Kate is found – not even a body. Twenty years later, a Green Oaks security guard named Kurt starts seeing strange images on his camera: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, he happens to meet Lisa Palmer (Adrian’s younger sister) who works at the mall. She knew Kate, and she and Kurt form a sort of awkward friendship. Each in a different way, they go back to the past, and we learn what really happened to Kate. As the novel goes on, we see the change from the individual ‘High Street’ shops to more modern large chains.
In Apostolos Doxiodis’ Three Little Pigs, we hear the story of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco. In the early years of the 20th Century, he moves with his family from Italy to New York City. He gets work as a shoemaker, and is soon successful enough to have his own shoe repair/shoemaking business. Unfortunately, he gets in a bar fight with Luigi Lupo, and ends up killing the other man. He’s arrested and jailed, but that’s not the end of his trouble. It turns out that the victim is the son of notorious Mafia gangster Tonio Lupo. When Lupo learns who was responsible for his son’s death, he visits Franco in prison and curses his family. Lupo says that each of Franco’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age as Luigi was at his death. As the novel goes on, we learn how this curse plays out with Franch’s sons, Alessandro ‘Al,’ Niccola ‘Nick’ and Leonardo ‘Leo.’ While the major focus of the novel isn’t on Franco’s shoe business, we see that there’s a real difference between it and today’s mass-produced shoes.
And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She is a former accountant-turned-baker, who lives and works in Melbourne. She takes pride in her bakery, Earthly Delights, where she bakes all of the bread herself, and her assistant, Jason, does the muffins himself. In Trick or Treat, a large chain, Best Fresh, opens a franchise very close to where Chapman has her bakery. Chpman’s concerned, even though Jason assures her that the competitor’s food isn’t as fresh or as tasty. Then, a young man jumps to his death from a nearby roof. Before long, his death is attributed to hallucinations brought on by ergot poisoning. All of the local bakeries, including Chapman’s, are suspect, and it’s very hard for her not to be able to do what she does – provide bread and rolls to her community. She wants to clear her bakery’s name, so she starts ask questions. And it’s interesting to see the difference between the way Chapman and her staff look at what they sell, and the way the local franchise does.
On the one hand, large chains and franchises are efficient, and can often provide goods and services at a lower cost. But there’s also something to be said for the uniqueness of independent companies. And it’s interesting to see how both are portrayed in the genre.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brownsville Station’s The Martian Boogie.