This is a guest post from Elaine Viets, author of the popular Josie Marcus mystery shopper mystery novels. Although mystery shoppers seldom get involved in murder investigations, other aspects of Josie’s life and career will be very familiar to mystery shoppers. Here is Elaine’s story of how she came to write a series of books about mystery shopping, and her personal mystery shopping past.
My mother was a mystery shopper in the mid-1960s. The job helped her escape four noisy kids and earn a little extra money for herself. Mystery shopping was the only work she was allowed outside the home.
It’s hard to understand her world now. The Sixties are seen as a wild time, but they weren’t for traditional blue collar wives. My father was a supervisor for Union Electric in St. Louis. My mom cleaned house and took care of three unruly boys and me. No mom in our neighborhood worked outside the home.
When my youngest brother started school full-time, Mom didn’t want to clean house and do church charity work. But Dad was old-school. Wives didn’t work – not in Florissant, Missouri. Mom’s job would insult his manhood and earning power.
Mystery shopping was their compromise. In Dad’s view, Mom didn’t have a “real” job. She was paid to shop, a female activity.
Mom probably worked harder than he did. She trudged through miles of stores and acres of asphalt parking lots. She had to be home by 3 p.m., when we kids got home from school. She also had to have dinner on the table when Dad came home at 5:30.
Fast forward to 2004. Mom and Dad were both gone, and so was their traditional world. I was now a writer for NAL, a division of Penguin books in New York. I wrote the national bestselling Dead-End Job mystery series. NAL asked if I’d try a series about a mystery shopper.
I knew I could write that series. I’d lived it. I’d eaten the greasy chicken Mom brought back from mystery-shopping a fast-food chain. I’d heard her talk about the supermarket checker who didn’t look under the cart and Mom had walked out with a fifty-pound sack of dog food. I’d listened to her complain how her feet hurt.
I got the contract. NAL thought the series would last maybe two or three books. My fifth Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper Mystery, “The Fashion Hound Murders,” will be published this November.
My protagonist, Josie Marcus, is a mix of fiction and fact. Josie is a single mom who lives in a two-family flat in Maplewood, an old St. Louis suburb. Josie’s ten-year-old daughter, Amelia, is a scholarship student at a ritzy school. Josie’s divorced mother lives upstairs, and gives her daughter free baby-sitting and unwanted advice.
Josie lives on her mystery shopper income, which is probably impossible. But Josie isn’t a true-to-life mystery shopper any more than James Bond is a real spy. The novels focus on the more dramatic parts of the job, just as spy movies avoid the dull stakeouts, document reading, and dead-end interviews for the dramatic chase scenes.
But some parts of my series are real. The questionnaires my mother used some fifty years ago are similar to ones used today. Mom had to note whether the clerk greeted her, check product displays and the cleanliness of the restrooms, among other things.
Josie often mystery shops with her best friend, Alyce, just as Mom shopped with her friend, Connie. Mom felt two middle-aged women were invisible. Josie at thirty-one, is some ten years younger than my mother was. Josie sometimes wears disguises for her work. That’s my invention, and here’s why:
When I worked at a chain bookstore in 2000, headquarters used mystery shoppers in south Florida. The shoppers started at the stores north of us in Palm Beach County, and worked down the coast to our store. We always knew the mystery shopper was on her way.
Back then, the chain sold a $25 discount club card. Clerks were required to pitch it to every customer. Customers hated listening to our routine and interrupted us with angry remarks: “I said NO last time!” “I already have a card.” When checkout lines were long and staff was short, we’d skip the pitch.
Only a mystery shopper listened to the entire spiel. That was the give-away. Our store would get a call from a clerk, “Mystery shopper on the way. Look for a woman about 45, with dark hair and a blue blouse.”
Every brunette in a blue blouse who entered our store was practically carried to the book she asked about. A wig and a blouse change would have made her unrecognizable.
Mom saw herself as a suburban spy, righting retail wrongs. So does Josie. Both believe that mystery shopping is a noble calling. Mom felt she fought for the invisible female shopper. Josie Marcus calls this woman Mrs. Minivan and sees her as ignored and neglected by some of the retail community.
Elaine Viets is the author of thirteen mysteries. She writes the Dead-End Job mysteries, set in South Florida, and the Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mysteries. She has won the Anthony and the Agatha Awards for her writing. Check out the first chapters of her novels at www.elaineviets.com. Order your autographed copies of “The Fashion Hound Murders” direct from one of the largest mystery bookstores in the nation, Mystery Lovers Bookshop. For orders over $10, shipping is free at http://www.mysterylovers.com/index.php?target=products&product_id=53398. “The Fashion Hound Murders” is also available on Kindle. I hope the adventures of Josie Marcus will help consumers realize the important work mystery shoppers do.