I Needed One More Fare to Make My Night*

TaxisDepending on where you live and your lifestyle, you may or may not take taxis very often. There are some cities where taking a taxi is easier than driving your own car, even if you have one; and of course, it’s far safer to take a cab if you’re having a night out drinking than it is to drive. Taxis are the scenes of lots of personal dramas, and cab drivers see an awful lot. So it’s little wonder that cabs and cab drivers appear in a lot of crime fiction.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is called in to help solve the murder of Enoch Drebber, an American visitor to London. At one point, Drebber’s secretary Joseph Stangerson is suspected of the murder, but then he’s killed himself. Holmes and Dr. Watson are now faced with two murders that are probably related. To get to the truth, Holmes has to follow two lines of investigation. One of them is the personal lives of the two victims. The idea there of course is to look for motive. The other is to trace their movements to see who would have had the opportunity to kill them. In the end Holmes deduces what happened and when the killer is confronted, that person admits to everything. In this novel, encounters in cabs play an important role…

Agatha Christie made use of taxis in several of her stories. In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner) for instance, famous actress Jane Wilkinson wants to hire Hercule Poirot to convince her husband Lord Edgware to consent to a divorce. She’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton, and wants a clean break from her current husband so she can marry again. In fact, she says that if Poirot does not help her,

‘I’ll have to call a taxi to go round and bump him off myself.’

Poirot agrees to at least talk to Edgware and when he does, he discovers that Edgware has already written to his wife agreeing to the divorce. Poirot and Captain Hastings are surprised by this, but they think that settles the matter. Then, Edgware is stabbed and Jane Wilkinson becomes the most likely suspect. A cab driver remembers taking her to the home, and what’s more, a woman giving her name was admitted to the house at the time of the murder. The only problem is that Jane says she was at a dinner party in another part of London, and there are twelve people ready to swear that she was there. So Poirot, Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. One possibility is the victim’s nephew Ronald, who was in serious debt and who now inherits both the title and a fortune. He claims he was at the opera on the night of the murder, but a helpful taxi driver is able to prove him wrong. The cabbie actually picked him up at the opera during the intermission and took him to the house. Now the new Lord Edgware has some explaining to do…

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York when he is drawn into the case of the disappearance of Claude Wynant. Wynant’s daugher is worried about her father and wants Charles to find out what happened to him. He’s just getting started on the case when Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is murdered. And as it turns out, Wynant himself had a motive for killing her. Now it’s more important than ever that Wynant be found. At one point on the novel, Wynant’s attorney Herbert Macaulay says that he believes Wynant is guilty, and tells of having been followed:

‘The quickest way to find out seemed to be by taking a taxi, so I did that and told the driver to drive east. There was too much traffic there for me to see whether this small man or anybody else took a taxi after me, so I had my driver turn south at Third, east again on Fifty-sixth, and south again on Second Avenue, and by that time I was pretty sure a yellow taxi was following me. I couldn’t see whether my small man was in it, of course; it wasn’t close enough for that. And at the next corner, when a red light stopped us, I saw Wynant. He was in a taxicab going west on Fifty-fifth Street. Naturally, that didn’t surprise me very much: we were only two blocks from Julia’s and I took it for granted she hadn’t wanted me to know he was there when I phoned and that he was now on his way over to meet me at the Plaza. He was never very punctual. So I told my driver to turn west, but at Lexington Avenue—we were half a block behind him—Wynant’s taxicab turned south.’

It’s an interesting example of the way taxis can be used to follow people…

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank, out-of-work London architect Stephen Booker has been pushed to the point of financial desperation. So he takes a night job driving cab, thinking that he’ll be able to use the daytime for a proper job search. One night he picks up an unusual fare. Mike Daniels is a professional thief with a big plan. He and his team want to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank, and they’ve come up with a way to defeat the bank’s powerful security measures. But they’ll need the help of someone with some expertise and when Daniels finds out that his cab driver is an architect, he thinks he’s found his man. Over a short period of time, he wins Booker’s confidence and finally persuades him to become a part of the team. Every detail of the robbery is carefully planned, and at first it looks as thought things will go beautifully. Then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Of course, cab drivers don’t really live charmed lives, as the saying goes. They’re often not paid particularly well, and customers can be awfully difficult. In Robin Cook’s Vector, we get a look at the life of Yuri Davydov, a disaffected Soviet emigre to New York. In the then-Soviet Union, he was a technician working for the Soviet biological weapons program. But he was (or so he believes) lured to the US with promises of lots of money and great success. It hasn’t worked out that way though, and Davydov has had to settle for a job as a taxi driver. He’s an easy convert for a group of skinheads who are also disenchanted with ‘the system.’ When they find out Davydov’s area of expertise, they enlist him to help them carry out their plan of revenge: a mass release of anthrax. New York City medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Lori Montgomery become aware of the plot when they investigate the death of a carpet dealer who was exposed to anthrax. Once they learn of the plot, they work to find and stop the conspirators before they can carry out their plan.

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. Winter is a small-time drug dealer/criminal who’s got big ambitions. He wants to climb to the top of Glasgow’s underworld and that’s got some of some powerful crime bosses upset. They decide to take care of this problem by hiring hit-man Calum McLean to murder Winter. MacLean learns his target’s routines and chooses a good night to do the job. That evening, Winter and his live-in girlfriend Zara Cope go to a nightclub called Heavenly. There Winter gets thoroughly drunk and Cope, seeing her opportunity, strikes up an acquaintance with Stewart Macintosh. They decide to spend the night together, but first, says Cope, they’ll have to get Winter home and to bed. So the two of them escort an extremely drunken Winter into a taxi and get out at the Winter/Cope home. A short time later, the interlude that the couple had planned is interrupted by McLean and his partner, who break into the house to do what they’ve been paid to do. With Cope’s help, Macintosh escapes, but information from the club’s CCTV and the memory of the cab driver allow the police to track him down, so he’s drawn into the investigation.

Taxis and taxi drivers can help establish alibis or guilt. They can also add other important information to an investigation. And as anyone who’s seen Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver can attest, drivers themselves can be fascinating, even dangerous, characters. Which taxi scenes have stayed with you?

Late Addition…

After this post was published, it occurred to me that it wasn’t complete. I couldn’t do a post about taxis in crime fiction without mentioning Kerry Greenwood’s historical Phryne Fisher series, which takes place in and around 1920’s Melbourne. Phryne’s made several friends in the course of the series, among them Bert and Cec, who are wharfies, but also have an all-purpose sort of cab service. They’re witty and well-drawn characters and if you haven’t yet ‘met’ them, I recommend it.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Taxi.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Kerry Greenwood, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock, Robin Cook

30 responses to “I Needed One More Fare to Make My Night*

  1. Great topic Margot – if we are going as far back is the 19th century, one would have to include Hume “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” but for a more contemporary feel would definitely turn to Mike Ripley’s humorous Angel series, in which the eponymous hero works part-time as a taxi-driver, even though his black cab has actually been ‘de-licensed’ … 🙂

  2. Funnily enough, I was just reading Robert Galbraith’s (JK Rowling’s) The Silkworm and thinking how often Cormoran Strike takes the taxi in London (something I very rarely did whilst living in London because of the traffic jams). Of course, he complains he hasn’t got the money for it, but he does have a valid excuse: a missing limb, all swollen with effort. Nothing really significant happens in the taxis, except conversations and deductions and the like, but there were just so many of those journeys!

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, that’s interesting! I think there are cities (and London’s one of them) where people do take cabs a lot. I know I’ve done that when I’ve been there. As you say, it may be that nothing very much actually happens in the cab, but it’s a sort of slice of life. And I’ve actually had some interesting conversations with cabbies.

  3. There’s a nice taxi scene in Michael Gilbert’s Smallbone Deceased – the driver knows who his fare was because ‘Norways tell a lawyer’. Another small part of the puzzle is completed….

  4. Taxi drivers and taxis show up a lot in the Nero Wolfe mystery series, but the one that comes immediately to mind is taxi driver Pitney Scott in THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN.

    • Tracy – You’re right of course about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. And thanks for mentioning The League…. I think it’s one of the better Wolfe stories, and it certainly fits with what I had in mind with this post.

  5. A different Sherlock Holmes one springs to mind – ‘A Case of Identity’ – where the mysterious Mr Hosmer Angel steps into a cab and…disappears! I still think Holmes was rotten to that poor girl…

    • FictionFan – So glad you mentioned that adventure! I almost chose that one instead of A Study in Scarlet, but changed my mind at the last minute. Glad you filled in that gap. And no I don’t think Holmes was particularly kind either…

  6. Margot has the TV series of the Phryne Fisher series reached your shores? It is great.

  7. Col

    Sam Reaves has written a few books with a Chicago taxi driver as him main man – Cooper MacCleish. I’ve enjoyed a few of these, though not for a year or two now.

  8. Kathy D.

    We can’t forget Carlotta Carlyle, Linda Barnes’ feisty Boston cab driver. Although she seems to have been retired (voluntarily or not?), she got
    into many scrapes and even murders, which she solved. I miss her.
    And, yes, I love Phrynne Fisher’s clothes. The hats!

    • Kathy – That’s true! The Carlotta Carlyle series is a terrific example of cabs in crime fiction. I’m glad you mentioned those novels. And I agree; Miss Fisher’s Mysteries really does a great job of portraying that 1920s upper-class wardrobe. The hats are just terrific, too.

  9. Great round-up, as usual, Margot! I hadn’t thought about taxis in crime fiction. I think it would also bring a fun 21st century spin on things to bring in those ride-share types of services…Uber and Lyft. Could help make a plot interesting, for sure.

    • Elizabeth – Thanks. And what a great idea to use Uber and Lyft and other such services as the basis for a crime story. Lots and lots of good possibilities there!

  10. Kathy D.

    Linda Barnes’ website lists 12 Carlotta Carlyle books. I could go back to them.

  11. One of Ngaio Marsh’s best mysteries involves a murder inside a taxi – Death in a White Tie. The victim, a friend of Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is suffocated while riding in the cab; a second passenger (clearly the killer) leaves the taxi and sends the driver off on a wild goose chase to another destination with the as-yet undiscovered body in his cab.

    • Thanks, Les. Trust you to suggest a great example, and …White Tie is terrific. I’ll admit it’s been a long time since I read this. Time for a re-read, I think…

  12. I sound like a broken record today, but the Asphalt Warrior series by Gary Reilly is fresh in my mind since another book was just released this month. All of the scenes in these irreverent and fun series are taxi scenes, and they’ll all tongue-in-cheek mystery.

    • Pat – You know, as soon as I read your comment about the Reilly series on my other post, I thought about this one too. It’s a series that I will admit I’ve not (yet) tried, but would like to. And it’s an absolute perfect fit for this post. Thanks for mentioning it.

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