Ah, Those Good Old Days When We Were Useful*

Today’s digital world has led to a lot of changes in customer service and in the back-and-forth that used to be a part of almost all transactions. In many places, you can now buy groceries, fill up your fuel tank, do your banking, and order gifts to be sent without ever actually interacting with another person. And those are just a few examples. Some people find that it’s easier and more efficient to go through the self-check lane at a store, for instance, than to buy from a cashier. But a lot of people miss the face-to-face interactions with cashiers, bank tellers, and others who work with customers. And let’s face it: if there’s a problem, let’s say, with the WiFi access, people tend to want to talk to a human being when they call in.

Customer service of all types features in crime fiction, too. And it’s not surprising. In the days before they could trace people’s use of bank cards, the police often talked to bartenders, cashiers, shop assistants, and others as a part of their search for information. Sometimes they still do, of course.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hercule Poirot solves the mystery of who killed philanthropist Emily Inglethorp. There are several suspects, as the victim was wealthy, and her relatives weren’t. There are other motives, too, and Poirot and the police have to sift through them all to find out who the murderer is. When it becomes apparent that Mrs. Inglethorp was poisoned, the police interview the person who sold the poison, and they get some damning information. But things aren’t always what they seem…  I see you, fans of Sad Cypress (and several other Christie stories that feature this sort of plot point).

In Gianrico Carafiglio’s Involuntary Witness, we are introduced to his protagonist, attorney Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari. One day, he gets a visit from a woman named Abajaje Deheba. She tells Guerrieri that her partner, Abdou Thiam, has been arrested for the abduction and murder of a nine-year-old boy. Thiam says he’s innocent, but there is evidence against him. And in any case, Abajaje believes Thiam may not get a fair trial, since he is Senegalese, not Italian. She wants Guerrieri to defend him. Guerrieri agrees to at least meet with Thiam, and the conference is arranged. As Guerrieri prepares for the trial, he goes over all of the evidence, and talks to several witnesses. One of them is Antonio Renna, who owns a place called Bar Maracaibo. He claims to have known the murdered boy, and to be acquainted with Thiam, who occasionally comes to the bar. He also claims he saw Thiam talking with the boy just before the abduction. Guerrieri knows that if that’s true, this puts his client at the scene of the crime – something that will make it difficult to prove Thiam innocent. As he prepares for the court dates, Guerrieri works to find out what really happened on that day, and whether he can use any of it to defend Thiam.

In Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride (AKA Calling Out For You), the small Norwegian town of Elvestad gets a big surprise when Gunder Jomann decides to travel to India to find a bride. He sees no reason why he shouldn’t be successful; he’s a steady man, a hard worker, and not a heavy drinker. When he gets to India, he meets Poona Bai. From the beginning, they like each other, and it’s not long before he persuades Poona to marry him and move to Norway. She needs to do some things to finish her life in India, so the couple decide that Gundar will go back to Norway, and Poona will follow in a few weeks. On the day Poona is due to arrive, Gundar’s sister, Marie, is in a terrible car accident, and needs him. So, he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport. They miss each other, though, and Poona is left to her own devices. When her body is found in a field near Elvestad, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer, and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate. One thing they need to do is trace Poona’s movements from the airport to Elvestad. They learn a great deal from Einar Sunde, who owns the local café, and from Grunwald, the local shopkeeper. Both men are very familiar with their usual customers, and both are aware of it when someone new comes around. They give Sejer and Skarre useful information about Poona, and about who else came and went.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. In 1978, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan spends the summer with her aunt, uncle, and two cousins. There’s not much to do in this small suburb of Sydney, so Angela, her cousin Mick, and Mick’s friends, spend quite a lot of time at the local drugstore, which has pinball machines. One afternoon, Angela goes missing. She is later found dead, with a scarf wrapped around her head. The police question everyone, including the drugstore staff. They learn that the young people had become regulars there and spent much of their time together. This leads the police to Mick and his friends. They claim innocence, but at first, the police aren’t quite ready to believe they know nothing about what happened. Then, there’s another murder. Sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is found dead, also with a scarf around her head. And Mick and his friends could not have been responsible. Now, it looks as though there might be a serial killer at work – a person the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The killer isn’t caught, though, and the family does its best to move on. Years later, documentary filmmaker Erin Fury approaches Angela’s family. She’s doing a piece on families of murder victims, and she wants to include them. The family agrees, and as they talk to Erin, we find out more about them, and more about both killings. And in the end, we learn the truth about both girls’ deaths.

There are plenty of other novels, too, where people in customer service (cashiers, service station attendants, and so on) notice things and are able to help the sleuth. I’m not convinced a cash machine or a self-check lane at a store could do the same…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Aan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Be Our Guest.


10 thoughts on “Ah, Those Good Old Days When We Were Useful*

  1. I really don’t like self-checkouts. I mush prefer real people, but in saying that, I have been to the supermarket twice in the last four months. I do my groceries (at the same supermarket) online and they’re delivered and for a long time I didn’t see the delivery driver because of contactless delivery. I miss that. But self-checkouts, nope. 🙂 From a writer standpoint it’s better to have people to interview than a machine.


    1. You have a good point, Cat. Self-checkouts really don’t do it for writer inspirations, do they? And it’s doubly hard if you have some sort of problem and need assistance. As far as online shopping goes, I’ve done that, too, and there’s definitely something to be said for it, especially during a high-level lockdown. But yeah, actual customer service and interaction has a lot to recommend it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Another interesting post, Margot. The company I work for manufactures checkouts for retailers (amongst other things) and of recent years there’s been a real shift toward self service checkouts. Driven by the retailers themselves. Their biggest expense is labour and the reduction in manned checkouts helps reduce staffing levels and increases profits. I’m conflicted about this development, though there’s no turning back now.


    1. Thanks, Col. And thanks for sharing your insights on this movement towards self-service and away from personal customer service. As you say, most companies find staffing to be their biggest expense, so one can see why they’d make the decision to do more automated things (when was the last time you called up a big company and an actual human answered the telephone?). But at the same time, I think there’s very good reason to have reservations about it all. I think we give up a lot when we give up customer service.


  3. I hate the lack of person-to-person contact that we’re heading towards – it always makes me think of the planet in Asimov’s Elijah Bailey novel, The Naked Sun, where everyone lives in complete isolation from one another. A bit like lockdown, only with robots! I also think it has changed crime fiction, with much less emphasis on interviewing witnesses and more technical stuff. I prefer the old house-to-house enquiries type of investigation to checking people’s location through their phone signals or their bank card…


    1. You know, I hadn’t thought of The Naked Sun when I was writing this, FictionFan, but you have a well-taken point! Thanks. On the one hand, it is convenient to, say, pay a bill online On the other, though, person-to-person contact is an important of our lives. In fact, research shows that personal contact is an important factor in longevity and overall health (including mental health). And in crime fiction, there is something in that ‘shoe leather’ approach to finding out the truth about a case. It gives the reader interesting characters, and the author all sorts of possibilities for plot points.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, our law office still has a person answer the phone. None of the lawyers has voice mail. The staff post for us a written message electronically if we cannot take a call. We have no answering machine for after hours. I have found a staff member taking a message effective as the staff member can make sure the message is clear and even ask a question or two. We are not planning any changes.


    1. Oh, that sounds great, Bill. When people call your office, they likely do want to talk to a person, not a recording or a ‘virtual assistant.’ You make a well-taken point, too, that if a staff member takes a message, that person can clarify the message, ask questions, and do other things to make the message more useful. A recording can’t.


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