My guess is that like most people, you’ve been warned about the potential dangers of cars since you were a child. That’s as it should be. For all that they give us in terms of mobility, cars really are potentially very hazardous places to be. Perhaps that’s why there are so many crime fiction novels in which bodies are found in cars. Ever since the Golden Age of crime fiction, cars have been pretty convenient places to put a body or to catch a victim unawares.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly are shocked one morning to find that there’s a body of a young woman in the library of their home. There are questions raised about whether Bantry himself might be guilty, so to prevent more gossip and clear her husband’s name, Dolly Bantry asks her friend and neighbour Miss Marple to help find out the truth. A search of missing persons’ records turns up a match to the body in the person of eighteen-year-old Ruby Keene, a professional dancer at the Majestic Hotel in Danemouth. Once that connection is made, the police (and Miss Marple) turn their attention to Ruby Keene’s friends, acquaintances and co-workers at the Majestic. They soon turn up several suspects, including Ruby’s jealous and angry cousin and the members of the Jefferson family, whose patriarch had become smitten with Ruby and adopted her as his daughter, leaving a good deal of his fortune to her. There are other suspects, too. Everything becomes more complicated when the burned-out hulk of a car belonging to George Bartlett (the last person to see Ruby alive) is found with a body in it. Now the police and Miss Marple have to find out how the two murders are tied together and who would have wanted to kill both people.
In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music, the body of mediocre film-maker Tony Aliso is found in the trunk of his Rolls Royce. Harry Bosch is called back from suspension to look into the murder, which bears all the hallmarks of a mob hit. It makes sense, too, since Aliso lived beyond the income one would expect from a small-time producer. With all of this evidence of possible mob involvement, Bosch isn’t sure why the L.A.P.D. is so reluctant to pursue the investigation, but that doesn’t stop him from looking into it himself. Bosch traces Aliso’s financial dealings to a shady Las Vegas casino where he discovers a money-laundering operation – and reunites with his old flame Eleanor Wish. It turns out that this operation is tied in with some of Aliso’s other “business arrangements,” and Bosch learns what that connection is. He also uncovers some nasty secrets that several highly placed L.A.P.D. administrators would rather keep hidden.
There’s also a body discovered in a car in Reginald Hill’s Child’s Play. In that novel, Geraldine Lomas’ son had gone missing during World War II, but she never accepted his death, so her will stipulates that if he’s not found by 2015, her fortune is to be divided among an animal rights group, a benevolent fund and Women for Empire. When she dies, a stranger appears at her graveside calling out “Mama,” and seeming to be her long-lost son. This not surprisingly throws the settlement of the estate into turmoil, and efforts begin to try to sort the will out. Then, a body is found in a battered-up car at the police station. And then there’s another death. Now, Superintendent Andrew “Andy” Dalziel and his assistant Peter Pascoe have to make sense of the two deaths and tie them to the very strange will.
In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s A Window in Copacabana, Inspector Espinosa and his team are faced with the murders of three police officers. None of the officers was outstanding in any way; in fact, they were all what you might call “invisible,” in the sense that very little is in their records. What’s so interesting about these murders, too, is that there are no witnesses. No-one has seen anything suspicious. At first, it looks very much as though there’s some sort of madman targeting police officers; in fact, before his death, the third victim says as much to Espinosa and confesses that he’s worried. Then, Maria Rita, the mistress of one of the dead officers, is found in her car, shot at point-blank range. Now it’s clear that there’s more to this case that someone with a grudge against the police. Espinosa and his carefully-chosen team begin to investigate further and find a nasty web of corruption and lies as they get to the truth behind the murders.
Commissario Salvo Montalbano has a case of a body found in a trunk in The Terra Cotta Dog. Montalbano makes an unusual arrangement with Gegè Gullotta, a small-time dealer and pimp who wants to set up a meeting between Montalbano and Tano the Greek, who’s a well-known Mafioso. Tano wants Montalbano’s help to arrange a “capture” before he’s killed. Montalbano agrees, but before he knows it, that deal with Tano gets him involved in some very odd investigations. One is a supposed theft from the Ingrassia supermarket (but was it really a theft?). Another is the supposed car accident that kills elderly Cavaliere Gerlando Misuraca (but was it an accident?). Yet another is the discovery of an unidentified body in the trunk of a car (who is the victim?). The identity of the dead man is tied in with the other events and with the discovery in a nearby cave of the bodies of a pair of long-dead lovers.
There’s also Åsa Larsson’s The Black Path. That’s the story of the murder of Inna Wattrang, Head of Information for Kallis Mining. When her body is found in an ice-fishing shelter, police detectives Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke are assigned to the case. Once they identify the victim, they begin to look into her life and find that more than one person might have had a motive for murder. For one thing, she had a special kind of magic that attracted all sorts of people; in fact, that’s been part of her skill with Kallis Mining. She’s been able to win over a lot of investors and potential clients and vendors. But Kallis Mining has also been involved in some shady practices, so several of the people Inna Wattrang knew have a reason to want her dead. She’s also got a complicated personal life with more than one hidden secret, and several complex relationships. With help from tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson, Mella and Stålnacke begin to untangle Kallis Mining’s business practices; they also look at the case from the “personal” angle. In the meantime though, there are other people who are also interested both in Inna Wattrang’s murder and in the other administrators of Kallis Mining. In one climactic scene, Mella and Stålnacke are racing to the home of one of Kallis Mining’s executives to put the finishing touches on the case, only to find that others have already gotten there first. Mella makes the shocking discovery of two bodies in a Hummer belonging to one of Kallis Mining’s administrators, and her reaction adds much to the final scenes in the story.
I’ve only mentioned a few of the many crime fiction novels in which a body is discovered in a car. I’m sure you could think of lots more than I could. I suppose if crime fiction teaches us anything, it’s to be careful around automobiles, as you never know what might happen. So the next time you’re about to get into your car, do be careful….
Many thanks to fellow crime writer and blogger Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen for the idea for this blog post. Dorte, please be safe in your car ;-)!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gary Numan’s Cars.