I Fire Up the Willing Engine*

Since most criminals don’t want to be caught, it’s always easiest for them if a murder looks like an accident or suicide. One popular kind of ‘accident’ in crime fiction is the hit-and-run that ends up killing someone. It makes sense too, since it can be difficult to find out (at least at first) who’s responsible for the death. It can also be hard to prove that the death is not accidental. And, to put it bluntly, a car can be a very effective murder weapon. So it should be no surprise that we see hit-and-run murders all through crime fiction.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive invitations to stay on Indian Island off the Devon coast. For different reasons they all accept. On the first night there, everyone is shocked when each one is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. One of these guests is young and reckless Anthony Marsden. He is accused of killing John and Lucy Combs, two young children who ran out of their cottage and into the street at the very moment he was driving too fast down their road. Not very long after these accusations Marsden dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, another person dies. Soon it becomes clear that the guests have been lured to the island and that someone is trying to kill each of them.

In Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, private investigator Mike Hammer meets a young woman Nancy Sanford in a coffee shop. They fall into conversation and she tells him her sad story. She’s a prostitute who right now doesn’t have the money to escape ‘the life.’ Hammer gives her some money, hoping that she’ll be able to start over. A few days later, he learns that she’s been killed in a hit-and-run incident not far from the coffee shop where they met. Hammer decides to investigate the death and discovers that Sanford was trapped in a major prostitution ring and that she’d been collecting evidence against those in charge. Her plan was to turn that evidence over to the authorities. Hammer goes up against the people Sanford’s evidence implicated to find out who killed her.

A hit-and-run incident turns out to be connected to a long-ago tragedy in Elizabeth George’s Traitor to Memory. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is a world-class violinist with a highly promising musical career ahead of him. Then one night, he finds himself unable to play. Frightened at what’s happened, Davies seeks psychological help and bit by bit, he begins to unravel his own past. In the meantime Davies’ mother Eugenie is killed in what looks like a tragic hit-and-run traffic accident. But as Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers learn, Eugenie Davies’ death is more than it seems on the surface. That’s how they discover a terrible truth about the Davies family: twenty years earlier, Eugenie Davies’ two-year-old daughter Sonia was killed in a tragic drowning incident. Their nanny Katja Wolff was imprisoned as a result and has recently been released. As the book unfolds we learn how that drowning is related to Eugenie Davies’ death and her son’s musical difficulties.

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts features the hit-and-run death of Melbourne political activist Anne Jeppeson. At the time of the incident, Danny McKillop is arrested and jailed for the crime, and there’s evidence against him. That said though, his attorney Jack Irish is too lost in drinking and in grief over the loss of his wife Isabel to do a good job on McKillop’s behalf. Eight years later McKillop is released. He tries hard to contact Irish, who by then has drunk himself out of his full-time legal career and is now trying to rebuild his life. Irish doesn’t return McKillop’s calls at first but finally decides to meet with him. By the time he makes contact though, McKillop’s been murdered. Irish feels guilty about not doing a better job of defending McKillop and even worse that he didn’t contact his former client before it was too late. So he begins to investigate McKillop’s death. He finds that McKillop was framed for the killing of Anne Jeppeson, and that her death was not an accident

Although it isn’t really a hit-and-run, a car crash is the focus of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Paul Bradley suddenly brakes his silver Peugot in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian. But the driver of the blue Honda behind Bradley doesn’t stop in time and hits Bradley’s Peugot. The two drivers get out of their cars and begin arguing. Things escalate quickly and very soon, the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and tries to kill Bradley. That’s when mystery novelist Martin Canning, who’s witnessed the whole thing, gets involved. Although he’s never done a courageous or reckless thing in his life he throws his computer case at the Honda driver, knocking him down and saving Bradley’s life. Another eyewitness is former cop turned PI Jackson Brodie. Brodie sees how upset Canning is by the whole thing and gives Canning his card, asking him to call if he needs anything. Canning feels compelled to accompany Bradley to the hospital. Both men end up getting drawn into this case, which has multiple threads including murder and fraud. And all of those threads lead in one way or another to that car crash.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are is the story of local television presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s happily married to his wife Andrea and the proud father of his eight-year-old daughter Mo, but he is struggling to deal with several changes and losses in his life. One of them is the sudden death of his mentor and predecessor at the network Phil Smethway. Allcroft and Smethway maintained their friendship after Smethway’s career took off and he went on to greater opportunities, so his death has truly upset Allcroft. Six months earlier, Smethway was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was out jogging. The driver was never identified, but the death has been put down to tragic accident. Allcroft begins to have questions about his friend’s death though when he is drawn one day to the scene of the accident. It’s a straight road where a driver should easily have been able to see a pedestrian, and there’s plenty of room on that road so that the driver would have had plenty of space to avoid Smethway. Then Allcroft learns other things that suggest that Smethway’s death was not a simple matter of a drunken or reckless driver. As he slowly learns about Smethway’s last weeks and months, Allcroft also gets to the truth behind that hit-and-run incident.

The hit-and-run is all too tragically common in real life, and it can be an effective device in crime fiction, too. Which novels using this plot point have I forgotten to mention?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Red Barchetta.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, Kate Atkinson, Mickey Spillane, Peter Temple

14 responses to “I Fire Up the Willing Engine*

  1. Margot, I’ve lost count of the number of Nero Wolfe mysteries which involve hit-and-run incidents. Sometimes the police think they’re accidents, sometimes not, but the reader knows, always, that they must be deliberate. “The Golden Spiders,” “The Father Hunt” and “Murder by the Book” are three that come to mind right off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are more!

    • Les – Oh, right you are about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. You’ve mentioned some good ‘uns, too. To me it’s little wonder that Wolfe doesn’t like things like cars or trains that move…

  2. Just dropped in to tell you how much I loved yesterday’s video. (Yup, I’m a day late and a dollar short as usual ;-)). I’m saving it for when I need a smile.

  3. It never occurred to me that hit-and-run can play such a critical role in crime-fiction and you have provided some fine examples. I usually associate hit-and-run with films, like RESERVATION ROAD starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Connelly. While a deliberate hit-and-run can be an effective murder weapon, unintended hit-and-run can be devastating for the victim and the victim’s family. You ask WHY, but you have no answers.

    • Prashant – I’ve heard that Reservation Road was good, but haven’t seen it. Thank you for reminding me of that film. You’re right too that accidental hit-and-run incidents are really awful because as you say, you can’t point to a logical reason for the death of the victim. The why part of a death can be haunting to survivors, especially when there is no real answer.

  4. The TV series ‘Lewis’ has him mourning his wife in a hit and run accident and I think there was a hit and run in an earlier Inspector Morse with Patrick Malahide. There’s a hit and run in Le Carre’s ‘Murder of Quality’ which is very sad.

    • Sarah – Thanks for those examples. I’ll admit, I’ve not seen the Lewis series, but I vaguely, vaguely remember the Inspector Morse episode. And thanks to for reminding me of Murder of Quality. I haven’t re-read those earlier le Carré novels lately; I need to go back to them for a ‘refresher course.’

  5. Yes, my (hopefully soon finished) novel has a car crash in the mountains that is not quite what it seems… Not a hit-and-run though.

  6. As usual, great post, Margot! I’ve just been revisiting Nicholas Blake, and his The Beast Must Die features a hit and run IIRC. Also – Nigel Balchin, mostly forgotten now, but I really rate him – his A Way Through the Woods has a hit and run at his heart, a really clever and involving plot. Julian Fellowes (pre-Downton) made a good film of it, Separate Lies, in 2005.

    • Moira – Thank you for the kind words 🙂 – And thanks for those suggestions. I’m especially glad you’ve mentioned Balchin. I must take a look at some of his work. I’ve always meant to read his work…

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