Bus Stop, Bus Goes*

BusesLike many people, I like the idea of using public transit. Take buses for instance. Besides the benefits to the environment of having fewer cars on the road, it’s nice to be able to read, work or just rest instead of actually driving. And it can be convenient to take a bus. For a writer, buses are also terrific places for people-watching and therefore, inspiration.  Here’s what Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver says about that in Hallowe’en Party:


‘I did sit across from someone in a bus just before I left London, and here it is all working out beautifully inside my head. I shall have the whole story soon. The whole sequence, what she’s going back to say, whether it’ll run her into danger or somebody else into danger. I think I even know her name.
Her name’s Constance. Constance Carnaby.’


And that’s not just something Christie made up for this particular novel. Writers really do get inspired sometimes in just that way. Trust me.

A lot of people also think it’s safer to take the bus as it cuts down on the number of traffic accidents. But as crime fiction shows us, it’s not always safe. Not at all.

For example, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team are stretched very thin, as the saying goes. The American Embassy in Stockholm has been the target of a harassment campaign in the form of protests, letters and the like because of the Vietnam War, and extra police are needed to protect it. Then word comes of a terrible tragedy. A gunman has murdered eight people on a bus; one of the victims is Åke Stenström, a fellow police officer. At first the murders look like a terrorist attack, but it’s shown that the gunman ‘hid’ Stenström’s murder among the others. He was the real target. The team looks into his personal life and the cases he was investigating. One of them was the murder of a Portuguese woman Teresa Camarão, whose murder hadn’t been solved. That case proves crucial to finding Stenström’s killer.

Colin Dexter’s Last Bus to Woodstock is the story of the murder of Sylvia Kaye. She and another young woman are waiting at a bust stop one night when it becomes clear that they’ve got the times wrong and aren’t going to be able to catch a bus. Sylvia decides to take the risk of hitchhiking and goes off. Later that night, her body is found outside a pub. Now Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have two jobs really. One is to find out as much as they can about the victim, so as to discover who might have had a motive to murder her. The other is to trace her last movements. And those last interactions and movements turn out to be very important to the solution of the mystery.

Dona Laureta Ribeiro finds out how dangerous buses and bus stops can be in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. One day she goes to Rio de Janeiro’s Twelfth Precinct and asks to speak to Inspector Espinosa. When told that he’s in a long meeting, she says that she’ll come back later. Shortly afterwards, she’s with a group of other people waiting at a bus stop when she falls, or is pushed, under an oncoming bus. When Espinosa finds out that the bus accident victim is the same woman who’d come to see him earlier, he begins to wonder whether this was an accident. As he traces Dona Laureta’s movements on the day of her death, Espinosa slowly puts the pieces of her life together. Then, there’s another death that seems to be related to the first. Espinosa finds that these two deaths are linked to his own past.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, a bus mysteriously swallows up ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Or at least that’s how it seems. She’s a budding detective with her own agency Falcon Investigations. Kate’s content with her life, but her grandmother Ivy thinks she’d be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. At first Kate refuses. But her friend Adrian Palmer talks her into going, promising that he’ll go along with her for moral support. The two board the bus for Redspoon, but Kate never returns. Palmer claims he doesn’t know what happened to Kate, but the police don’t believe him. They don’t have enough evidence for an arrest though. Still everyone is so convinced that he’s responsible for her disappearance that Palmer leaves town, planning never to return. Twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa has a dead-end job at a local mall. One night she happens to encounter Kurt, who is a security guard at the mall. They form an unlikely kind of friendship, and Kurt tells Lisa that he’s been seeing something odd on his security cameras: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate, carrying a stuffed monkey who looks a lot like Kate’s companion Mickey the Monkey. Bit by bit, as Kurt and Lisa figuratively return to the past, we find out what really happened to Kate.

And then there’s Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. One afternoon, Emma Curtis is taking a bus home from work when she is witness to a tragedy in the making. Three young people board the bus and begin to bully another passenger Luke Murray. Everyone’s upset about the bullying, but only one person does anything to stop it: Jason Barnes. When he intervenes, the harassment stops temporarily. Then, Luke and Jason get off the bus at the same stop. So do the bullies though, and the bullying starts all over again. It continues all the way to Jason’s front yard. When it’s all over, Jason has been fatally stabbed and Luke is gravely injured. The police investigate, and it turns out that Luke may not have been a random victim. As the police go after the young people involved, Staincliffe addresses questions of bullying, responsibility and the effect of being in a crowd. She also looks at the devastating impact of sudden death and terrible injury on families.

See what I mean? Buses have a lot going for them. Really, they do. But they can also be very dangerous. Now if you’ll excuse me, here’s my bus – don’t want to miss it!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Graham Gouldman’s Bus Stop, made famous by the Hollies.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

32 responses to “Bus Stop, Bus Goes*

  1. Your post reminded me of Margery Allingham’s “Tether’s End,” in which a bus features quite prominently. A pawnbroker is murdered and his body disappears. Police think the body may have been removed in a bus that was seen parked in the area – but what to make of the two elderly people seen sitting quietly on that bus as it sat in the street, parked? Neither bus, nor elderly passengers – nor missing body – could be found…

    • Les – Oh, that’s fabulous! That’s one of those Allinghams that I’ve heard of but not (yet) read. I really must re-read those novels, and this time get to them all. Thank you for the excellent example.

      • I don’t remember that one either! Like yourself, I think it’s about time I had a global Allingham reread. I imagine some of them might be a bit hard to find here in the US.

      • My thanks to Les to for reminding me of that Allingham book. I read it long ago and had forgotten both the title and the author though not the plot.

        What’s was Lost seems very interesting.

        • Neeru – What Was Lost has become one of my favourite books ever. It’s a beautifully told story that is poignant without being maudlin. I hope that if you read it, you’ll be glad that you did.

  2. Josephine Tey and the Franchise Affair – a young woman has made wild allegations against the two women who live in a lonely house. She seems to know a lot about their house, and that adds conviction to her story. But the investigators work out that she could have seen a lot of the house from a bus – but it would need to be the right kind of bus. Does a double-decker run on that route? One more step in the painstaking uncovering of what really happened.

    • Moira – Oh, that’s a wonderful example! And Tey was such a skilled writer. You’re also reminding me of P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness, in which what someone sees from a bus figures prominently in the investigation of the the murder of a forensic lab supervisor. People who look out of bus windows (as one does) often see some pretty important things.

  3. Didn’t Agatha Christie herself get the inspiration for one of the characters in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, from a woman sitting opposite her on a bus?
    Thanks for mentioning The Franchise Affair, Moira. I must put that on my list for re-reading.

    • Chrissie – I’d heard that too about Christie. I’m sorry I can’t lay my hands on a quote at the moment, but I have read that. And I agree about The Franchise Affair. I must re-read it. I’d forgotten it until Moira mentioned it.

  4. kathy d.

    I must put The Franchise Affair on my TBR list (groan).
    The Laughing Policeman, Split Second and What Was Lost do have bus travel as essential to the story. In The Laughing Policeman, the bus is the scene of the crimes.
    A lot to be said about buses, just as important as trains in mysteries when one thinks of it.
    Last Bus to Woodstock sounds a bit creepy. I might not read it. I hitchhiked once in New Hampshire with a friend in broad daylight. It almost turned out badly, but our instincts kicked in and we left the scene. Never hitchhiked since then, and this is the backdrop to too many really awful films and books — and real-life crimes — with women as victims of horrendous acts.

    • Kathy – You’re right that the bus per se isn’t critical to the story in What Was Lost or Split SecondThe Laughing Policeman for the matter of that. But the bus serves in all three novels as a solid context. And I’m very glad you and your friend came to no real harm when you hitchhiked. It used to be a lot safer to do that than it is now.

  5. There must be something wrong with my brain. I initially read your heading as:

    Bus Stop, Bee Gees

    But no: it’s the Hollies (yay!) who’re the relevant band.

  6. I love public transport, too. Best deal I’ve had possibly ever was the Blue Bus from Seattle to Vancouver last year: two of us got tickets for $US7, and one scored a ticket for $2! Meanwhile, back in Melbourne, it costs me up to $12 for a daily ticket to get to work 30km away!

  7. I took the bus round trip between Northern Colorado and central Illinois a couple of times and found it exhausting and at times terrifying. Some incidents from those travels are worming their way into my current WIP….I was amazed to find those memories so vivid and unpleasant. I guess that tells you why I don’t travel by bus anymore. 😀 .

    • Pat – Oh, I can well imagine that you’d have found that bus trip awfully tiring. And I can see how some of what happened on those trips would have made its way into your writing. If something stands out as unpleasant, I think it does stay in the memory. Probably lots of good ‘fodder’ for characters and incidents in your work. But no, I probably wouldn’t take that long a bus trip either.

  8. Apparently Fredric Brown used to work out his plots by taking bus journeys – must admit, I prefer trains myself 🙂 Some great examples there Margot, thanks.

  9. Now that you’ve put them all in one place, it is amazing how many crime stories have something to do with buses! I thought trains would outweigh buses – and possibly planes will start to overtake them too…

    • Marina Sofia – There really are a lot of buses in crime fiction aren’t there? Of course, as you say, trains and planes play a big role too. I don’t know if they’ll ever overtake buses, but it is amazing how often crime fiction makes use of public transit.

  10. I used to get some of my best ideas for stories when I took a bus to work. Buses play a much greater role in British (or European) fiction than in the US from my reading. Around here, most people have never been on one.

    • Patti – I think you may have a point. I know a lot of people take buses in large cities, but perhaps in smaller cities, towns and so on it’s not as common. And buses really are good sources for inspiration.

  11. kathy d.

    My one hitch-hiking experience was in the 1966-67 period during my college years. Never did it again. One chilling experience was enough for me and enough for me to warn off women from every doing this.
    And hitch-hiking in and of itself could be a blog topic, as it’s certainly been parts of book and movie plots.

    • Kathy – Hitchhiking really is a dangerous thing to do isn’t it? I’m sorry to hear you had a frightening experience, and I don’t blame you one bit for never hitchhiking again. Thanks too for the blog post idea. I probably will do a post on that at some point; it’s a great topic.

  12. Your examples are great, and several of them I plan to read. I agree with Patti that buses are used much less in the US. I am sure it depends on the city, but where I have lived the bus access has not been conducive to choosing alternative transportation, unless it is a necessity.

    • Thanks, Tracy. You (and Patti) have a well-taken point about the availability of easy, quick bus transportation in the US. It may be because it’s more of a ‘car culture’ or for some other reason. But there are lots of places where it’s hard to get from here to there by bus. As you say, it does depend on where you are. Still, I’ve found it easier in other places than it is in places I’ve lived in the US.

  13. Col

    Can’t recall any examples from my own reading, but then my memory isn’t what it used to be. Sjowall/Wahloo books await me!

    • Col – I know all too well what you mean about memory *sigh.* And the Martin Beck series is, in my opinion, one of the finest classic police procedurals out there. I hope that if you get the chance to read them, you’ll enjoy those novels.

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