Today’s Internet and social media have allowed individual, one-or-two-person businesses more ‘reach’ and larger markets than ever. Consider authors, for instance (Please, do consider authors… 😉 ). Self-published authors have many options for getting the word out about their books. But they aren’t the only ones. If you’ve ever been to Etsy or other, similar, sites, you know that individuals who design and sell their own products can now reach people as never before. So can those who provide services, whether it’s editing, web design, or tax preparation.
It hasn’t always been that way, of course, and it’s interesting to see how those individual businesses have been represented in crime fiction as time has gone on. After all, not everything has to be purchased from a mass producer. And sometimes, those characters who in those businesses can add interest to a story.
For many centuries, individual businesses were integral to a lot of economies. We see that, for instance, Eleanor Kuhns’ Will Rees is an itinerant weaver, who lives in Maine at the very end of the 18th Century. As the series begins (with A Simple Murder) Rees doesn’t really have what you’d call a home base. He doesn’t even have a shop. He travels through New England, doing weaving jobs as he is commissioned. As the series goes on, he meets and, later, marries, Lydia Farrell, and begins to develop what a lot of us would consider a home base. But he still travels, and he owns his business by himself. People learn about him mostly through word of mouth. On the one hand, life is hardly physically easy for Rees. On the other, he has almost no overhead expenses. Fans of historical crime fiction can tell you that there are plenty of other characters who have similar individual businesses.
Later, of course, individuals had their businesses in small shops. Many still do. In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, we meet Jenny Driver, who is a milliner. When her good friend, Carlotta Adams, dies of what looks like an accidental overdose of barbiturates, Jenny is, understandably upset. She’s also not convinced that this death was accidental. And neither is Hercule Poirot. He has more than one conversation with Jenny as he works to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. And it turns out that this death is related to an earlier murder. In this novel, Jenny is portrayed as successful, with her own shop and at least one employee. It’s still a time when those with the means go to individual dressmakers and tailors to have their clothes made, and milliners to have hats made.
Even today, there are people who have their own, individual, clothing businesses like that. For instance, there’s D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington. He is a retired milliner, who used to own a well-regarded shop in London. He’s very skilled at creating just the right hat for each of his clients. As the series goes on, he retires to the village of Tuesbury, where he still makes the occasional hat in a shed he has on his property (but don’t tell the local council!). He takes great pride in all the details of a well-made hat, too. Interestingly, word about his millinery skill is ‘out there’ on the Internet, thanks in large part to his friend, Delilah Delibes. She’s also getting the word out that he’s a skilled sleuth, too…
Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish can tell you that he is a sometimes-lawyer who also happens to be good at finding people, especially people who don’t want to be found. One of the interesting sides of Irish’s character is that he has also informally apprenticed himself to a cabinetmaker, Charlie Taub. Taub takes great pride in finding the perfect piece of wood for every project, and he cares about each detail. And a Charlie Taub product is a piece to treasure.
Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder is the story of a relatively new sort of individual business owner. Malin Andersson is a professional blogger, whose blog, Malin’s Table, features natural recipes and home living ideas. She makes a decent living from the blog, and has few overhead expenses, since she runs the business from her home on the island of Fåröe. She and her husband, Henrik Kjellander, take their two children on a two-month trip, during which they sublet their home. When they return, they find that everything is in a total mess, and there’s been damage. At first, they put it all down to terrible tenants. But then, Malin discovers that some of the family photographs have been deliberately mutilated. Now uneasy, she wants to get the police involved. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson look into the matter and try to find out who would have a personal grudge against the family, or at least against one member of it. The stakes get higher as the family begins to receive anonymous threatening letters. Then, the couple’s daughter, Ellen, disappears. Now, there’s a frantic search for her, and everyone knows that the police are going to have to solve this case quickly before there is even more tragedy.
Even in this post-industrial age, there are still plenty of individuals who have their own businesses. They create unique products, they offer valuable services, and, with the Internet, they’re often easy to find. There are plenty of risks, of course, but there’s also little in the way of overhead expense. And, because of the nature of this sort of business, owners can be flexible as they learn what customers want. And, for customers, there’s nothing quite like that specially designed gift basket. Or that perfect knitted hat-and-scarf set. Or that website that is exactly what you need.
Oh, the ‘photo? Individual businesses need to have flexible ways for people to make payments. Like this Square that I use for my books.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Yeah Yeah Noh.