On a Long, Lonesome Highway*

Deserted RoadsIf you’ve ever taken a long drive, you know how empty and lonesome a road can be. There are certain stretches of road where it’s very unwise to drive unless you have a car that’s in dependable shape, and plenty of fuel. But even those things don’t always keep a person out of trouble when the road is long and fairly empty. That sort of setting is tailor-made for a crime fiction story for obvious reasons. So it’s little wonder we see it an awful lot. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with a lot more.

In Agatha Christie’s The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Hercule Poirot gets a visit one evening from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Prime Minister David MacAdam has apparently been kidnapped while en route to Paris for an important speech he was scheduled to make. World War II is in the offing and MacAdam had planned a ‘rally the troops’ speech. But there are many important people who want to bring down MacAdam’s government and move England in the direction of appeasement. So this particular speech is of critical importance. Poirot and Captain Hastings are given one day to find MacAdam and catch his kidnappers, since the speech is supposed to take place the next evening. They get started immediately and in the end, they find out what has happened to the prime minister. They discover that a certain stretch of lonely road played an important part in the story’s events.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia, Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport Jimmie Lee Boggs and Tee Beau Latiolais to Louisiana’s state prison at Angola. Both men have been convicted of murder, but Tee Beau’s grandmother Tante Lemon claims that he’s innocent. She says he was with her at the time of the murder for which he’s been convicted, but that no-one will listen to her. She’s asked Robicheaux to help her clear Tee Beau’s name, but Robicheaux doesn’t think there’s much he can do about it. He does get drawn into the case though. While he, Benoit and their two prisoners are en route to Angola, Boggs and Tee Beau escape, leaving Benoit dead and Robicheaux badly injured. Here’s how Burke describes the place where the escape happens:

 

‘The rain struck my face, and I rolled the window up again. I could see cows clumped together among the trees, a solitary, dark farmhouse set back in a sugarcane field, and up ahead an old filling station that had been there since the 1930s. The outside bay was lighted, and the rain was blowing off the eaves into the light.’

 

Not a place where one wants to be injured. Still, Robicheaux survives. He gets his chance to go after Jimmie Lee Boggs, too. An old friend Minos Dautrieve, who’s now with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) asks Robicheaux to go undercover to bring down New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. Robicheaux isn’t willing to do the job until he finds out that Boggs has been working with Cardo. When he learns that, Robicheaux sees his chance to get Boggs.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances we meet political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn. In this, the first in this series, we learn that Kilbourn is mourning the loss of her husband Ian, who was murdered one night on the way back from a colleague’s funeral. Both Deadly Appearances and A Colder Kind of Death tell the story of how Ian Kilbourn was returning to Regina when he stopped to help a young couple, Kevin Tarpley and Maureen Gault, who were having car trouble.  They were on a lonely stretch of road, apparently on their way to a party, when their car gave up the ghost. When Kilbourn refused to take them to the party, Tarpley killed him. That murder has several consequences beyond the obvious grief that it cases the Kilbourn family. The story arc concerning Ian Kilbourn’s murder plays an important role in a few of the novels in this series, and it adds to the interest.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are introduces readers to TV presenter Phil Smedway, who worked for a regional series until he ‘hit it big’ and went national. Then one day he was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was jogging on a more or less deserted stretch of road. His successor Frank Allcroft (whom Smedway also mentored) feels drawn to the place where the accident occurred. Oddly enough, it’s a straight length of road, so even an impaired driver would have been able to see Smedway and swerve to avoid him. What’s more the weather was dry and clear at the time of Smedway’s death. So Allcroft can’t see how this could have been an accident. He decides to find out what really happened to Smedway and in the process, finds out some unexpected things about his mentor.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson have just arrived in Melbourne from Scotland with their nine-week-old son Noah. Then they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their son. Immediately the Australian media begins to make much of the story, and a massive search is undertaken. But there is no sign of Noah. Gradually some questions come up about, especially, Joanna. Did she or Alistair have something to do with Noah’s disappearance? Gradually, and through a few people’s points of view, we learn what happened to Noah. One of the places that play a role in the story is a lonely stretch of road on the Tullamarine Freeway that links Melbourne to the airport. Here’s how Fitzgerald describes it:

 

‘Were there really no towns or buildings in sight? Just the straight road behind them and the straight road ahead with black, ominous sky looming over its horizon?’

 

As this is Joanna’s first trip to Australia, it’s not exactly a warmly welcoming bit of scenery…

Of course, you never do know what’s going to happen on a long stretch of road. That’s what bank manager Martin Carter finds out in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty and F***ed!  Carter finds out that he’s being retrenched, and it doesn’t help matters that his marriage is ending too. On his last day at the bank, he can’t resist the chance to get his hands on a million-dollar payroll and start all over. With the aid of a stolen police 4WD, Carter takes off. His plan is to meet up with an old friend, but the trip certainly doesn’t go as planned. Along the road he meets up with a librarian who’s got her own problems, a group of New Age bikers, and lots more interesting sorts of people. It’s certainly not a peaceful drive through the country.

As I say, you never do know what’s going to happen on a long, deserted stretch of road. Perhaps best keep the windows closed and don’t stop. For anything. ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Turn the Page

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Helen Fitzgerald, James Lee Burke

20 responses to “On a Long, Lonesome Highway*

  1. good advice to not only keep the windows closed but also the doors locked.

  2. Margot: Wyoming has a lot of empty lonesome roads that feature in the Walt Longmire series of Craig Johnson and the Joe Pickett series of C.J. Box.

    If I recall correctly, Johnson’s character, Deputy Santiago Saizarbitoria, was badly wounded on just such a road. Longmire worries during Saizarbitoria’s recovery that he has “bullet fever”.

    I expect I drove the road Gail Bowen was thinking about where Ian Kilbourn was killed. Almost every highway in Saskatchewan is long and empty. When I drive the 300 km from Melfort to Regina there are but 10 turns. Unless it is late at night I think of the highways as quiet rather than lonely.

    • Bill – You know, I like that term quiet. Crime fiction aside, it really can be peaceful to drive on empty roads. And thank you (!) for mentioning Junkyard Dogs. You’re right of course that Saizarbitoria is wounded on the kind of road I thought of when I wrote this post. And those roads feature in several other Walt Longmire novels too. I’m thinking for instance of Death Without Company, where one of the characters is wounded in a car accident on a road like that. Rural places such as that part of Wyoming have a lot of those kinds of roads.

    • Bill: We have the Longmire TV series on cable now and it is very good although the contrast between the beautiful scenery and life on the reservation is thought provoking. I remember driving along a long straight very empty road in Arizona leading into the Navajo Reservation, and the sun was glistening on the broken bottles along the verge for mile after mile after mile. Very sad.

  3. kathy d.

    All true, except it’s maddening when you is reading a mystery, and a solitary woman detective drives down a long, isolated road in the middle of the night! It’s too obvious a set-up for danger — and the reader wants to yell out, “Don’t do that! Take someone with you! Wait until daylight! Take a weapon! It’s a trap!”
    Many nerve-wracking nights have been spent worrying about a woman detective driving down the lonesome road. We know trouble is brewing.

    • Kathy – You have a point. It’s scenario that is too of ten overdone, or perhaps better to say that too often, characters don’t behave realistically or wisely and I agree: that’s very annoying. I prefer my characters to act intelligentlywhen there’s that much potential danger.

    • Though I have to admit to having driven often on long, isolated roads in the middle of the night. There was a year-long airline strike in Australia in the late 80′s – I was living in Sydney at the time and needed to go to my home town several times so had to drive – often I was the only one on the road, or if I was bored and trying to stay awake I’d pick up a hitch-hiker! Yes I was younger and sillier then. But it does prove people do stupid things that you would never imagine them doing :)

      • Bernadette – I think you’re right. People really do things that you couldn’t imagine they would do. And if you need to get somewhere and can’t take a flight, you drive. Even if the road is long and lonely and it’s late. I’ve done those long kinds of drives too.

  4. I remember a car chase in one of the James Bond books, not sure which one. Another car joins in – young man in a sports car I think – he doesn’t realize that this is deadly serious, and business, he thinks it’s just a race. And he gets nudged over a cliff edge or something, and that’s the end of him. I was quite shocked by the ruthlessness when I read it many years ago, and resolved (this was before I was of driving age) never to join in any road races, ever, a resolution that I have definitely kept.

    • Moira – I’m sorry to say that I don’t recall which Ian Fleming novel that was, although the scene sounded familiar to me. It’s true that the people in Bond’s world don’t play games. And for anyone, road races are dangerous. I don’t engage in them either, and I can see why you’d resolve to avoid them. And you’ve made me think of cliffs – another setting for a lot of fictional mayhem.

  5. The Cry was a wonderful example of a long empty road of where anything can happen. It was such a stretch of road that a lot of heartbreak happened there and it was brilliantly done.

    • Rebecca – I thought it was brilliantly done too. Fitzgerald sets the scene so well, and as you say, so much happens there that’s depicted so effectively. Folks, if you haven’t tried The Cry, it’s a good ‘un.

  6. My favourite car on a lonely road, running out of petrol moment comes from a film, not a book (and is very tongue in cheek about it): ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’. Ever since, I haven’t quite been able to take the set-up seriously in books. Of course, there is a whole other set of problems associated with hitchhiking. You just know something terrible is going to happen there.

    • Marina Sofia – Yes, that show/film certainly takes the whole ‘lonely road with no fuel’ scenario to its campy limit doesn’t it? It’s a wonderful show, but after that you do have to work to really take the scenario seriously. Oh, now I’ve got the soundtrack playing in my minde…
       
      And about hitchhiking? Yes, most definitely dangerous in real life, and lots of crime novels make use of that fact. As you say, you just know when someone picks up a hitchhiker that something awful is about to happen.

  7. Col

    I kind of think more about films than books. DUEL from the early 70′s, where a psychotic lorry driver pursues a car. Maybe THE HILLS HAVE EYES also.

    • Col – That’s a good point. I have to admit to not having seen Duel, but there are definitely films (and I agree that The Hills Have Eyes could qualify) where there’s a sort of sinister theme of the empty road. I’m also now thinking of an episode of the original Twilight Zone called The Hitch-Hiker. Not exactly a warm and happy depiction of a long road trip.

  8. Long trips on deserted roads are certainly a good start for a scary mystery plot. Can’t remember many mysteries with long stretches of road in them, but … In Death Wore White, by Jim Kelly, there is a stretch of road not often used where motorists are diverted to… with a death resulting….

    • Tracy – Long, empty roads really are good settings and contexts for mysteries aren’t they? There’s just a certain atmosphere about them I think. And thanks for reminding me of Death Wore White. That’s one I’d heard about but not (yet) read. I’ll have to try it.

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