Have you ever been to an auction? They can be a lot of fun, whether or not you’re actually bidding on something. And sometimes, you can find a very good deal on something you really like. Auctions have their own kind of tension, too, as the items are described and the bidding starts. That’s one reason they can be such good backgrounds for scenes in novels, or even for contexts.
They’re quite varied, too. There are charity auctions, fun auctions (at street fairs, for instance), and silent-bid auctions. There are also, of course, extremely exclusive, high-bid auctions for ultra-expensive items. So, an author has flexibility when it comes to weaving an auction into a book.
Auctions bring a lot of disparate people together, and that can be part of their appeal, both in real life and as a tool for the writer. Wherever you have a group of people, you can have conflict and tension. And that can add much to the suspense of a story.
For instance, in Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Going, Going, Gone, an auction turns out to be murderous. Atwood Taylor’s sleuth, Asey Mayo, takes his cousin, Jennie, to a local auction. Wealthy John Aiden has died, and the story is that he hid a lot of cash among his things. If that’s true, any of the items up for bid could have a lot of money in them. Aiden’s brother, Gardner, pays the unusually high price of three thousand dollars (the story takes place during WWII) for an old chest that’s supposed to contain books. But the key’s gone and the chest is locked. Mayo, being a local handyman, among other things, has a lot of different sorts of keys, and he’s asked to help open the chest. When it is finally opened, everyone’s shocked to see the body of Solatia Spry, who is said to be the local antiques ‘eyes and ears’ for a wealthy California client. Now, Mayo gets drawn into the investigation, and it turns out that more than one person had a very good motive for murder.
John Grant, who wrote as Jonathan Gash, wrote a series of mysteries featuring Lovejoy, an antiques expert and dealer. He’s got more than his share of faults, but Lovejoy knows an antique’s value. He what he does, and is passionate about antiques. And he’s gotten to know many of the other people in the field, as it’s a small community, so to speak. He attends his share of auctions, where he picks up on a lot of the gossip going around that community. In fact, in The Judas Pair, that’s one strategy he uses to try to track down a mythical (or is it?) pair of flintlocks called the Judas Pair. George Field wants Lovejoy to find these guns, because one of them was used to shoot his brother, Eric. Lovejoy’s not even sure they really exist, but he agrees to see what he can do. He puts the word out among his friends in the business, and starts going the rounds of the auctions. He soon learns that the guns actually do exist, and that someone really did use one of them to kill Eric Field. The closer Lovejoy gets to the truth, the more danger there is for him.
Tony Hillerman’s People of Darkness features his sleuth, Navajo Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee. In one part of this novel, Chee is looking for a man named Tommy Charley, who may have information on a case he’s investigating. He’s told that Charley will be attending a rug auction at a local elementary school, so he changes plans and goes. The auction itself doesn’t solve the case, but Chee does get some information. And, he meets a teacher there named Mary Landon, whom fans will know as Chee’s love interest for part of the series. The auction scene also gives readers a look at smaller, local auctions where you can find truly beautiful, handmade items that you can’t get at more ‘touristy’ or big-budget places.
Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide features a charity dinner and art auction hosted by Memphis-area socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. The evening is to be a benefit event, but Tristan is hardly a kind, generous person. She’s vindictive, malicious, and motivated only by self-interest. Still, plenty of people attend. One of the artists whose work will be featured is Sara Taylor. She’s already had a serious argument with Tristan about one of the paintings, but she can use the recognition (and money) that comes from being featured at the auction. When Sara’s mother-in-law, restaurant owner Lulu Taylor, discovers Tristan’s body that evening, Sara becomes the most likely suspect. Lulu knows she’s innocent, so she starts asking questions. And, as you’d imagine, she finds plenty of people who are not upset by Tristan Pembroke’s death.
And then there’s Gail Bowen’s The Gifted, which features her sleuth, political scientist and (now-retired) academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. Her daughter, Taylor, has real artistic talent and passion, and has been invited to include some of her work in an upcoming charity art auction to be held in aid of Regina’s Racette-Hunter Centre. She’s only fourteen, and her parents aren’t entirely sure she’s ready for all the recognition this event could bring her. But they give permission for her to go ahead with her work. Taylor’s already shown her parents one of the pieces that she’ll present at the auction. The other, though, she keeps secret. And that painting proves to have tragic consequences for several people.
Auctions bring together people from all over, and they can be fun and exciting. But they can also be tense, and full of suspense. Little wonder we see them in the genre.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s Auctioneer (Another Engine).