Most of us haven’t had the experience of having our own chauffeur/driver. More likely, we’ve taken on that role for our children and grandchildren. But there was a time when families who could afford to do so had a chauffeur, or at least someone whose duties included driving people where they wanted to go. And there are still plenty of people who consider it a real status symbol to have a driver. There is also a big market for professional car services; they, too, employ drivers.
Drivers and chauffeurs can play interesting roles in a crime novel. They see a lot, and they know a lot about their employers’ personal business. This makes them both potentially powerful (because of what they know) and vulnerable (for the same reason). There are lots of examples of drivers and chauffeurs in crime fiction. Here are just a few.
In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help him out of a difficult situation. Local book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s task is to find Geiger and stop him; this Marlowe agrees to do. By the time he tracks the book dealer down though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood is a witness, but she’s having a mental breakdown (or perhaps has been drugged) and can’t be of much help. Marlowe gets her out of the way before the police find her and in doing so, thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods. Then he gets a call from LAPD cop Bernie Ohls, who tells Marlowe that the Sternwoods’ Buick, and the body of their chauffeur, have been dredged from the water off the Lido pier. It looks on the surface like a case of suicide, but soon enough it’s proven to be murder. Now, each in a different way, Ohls and Marlowe work to link that death to Geiger’s death and to other events in the story.
Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary introduces readers to Glenn Hadlock. He’s recently been released from San Quentin and is looking for work. It’s not easy, as you can imagine, because of his record. But he finds one opening that seems right: chauffeur/bodyguard for Eileen Scofield. Her very wealthy husband Victor is disabled and cannot leave his room. But, as he tells Hadlock, he doesn’t want his wife to be trapped in the house; hence, the need for an escort/chauffeur. The pay is excellent, the working conditions quite good, and Eileen Scofield is pleasant company, so Hadlock eagerly accepts the position when it’s offered. The only stipulation is that Hadlock’s relationship with his employer’s wife must be strictly professional. Anything else will have dire consequences. Hadlock has no problem with that job requirement, so at first, all goes well. But slowly, he learns that this position will be a lot more dangerous than he thought.
One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing duo’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. Unlike many fictional sleuths, she has a loving family whom she visits when she can. The Crawfords’ driver Simon Brandon is virtually a member of the family, although he is an employee. He served with Bess’ father in the military, and has remained loyal. Besides being the family chauffeur, he also conducts certain family business and travels on behalf of the Crawfords at times. Although it’s not really a job requirement, he also looks out for Bess, and does his best to keep her safe (not that that’s a particularly easy job…).
And then there’s Handbrake, whom we first meet in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. He serves as the driver for Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri (hence, his nickname). Handbrake is highly skilled at negotiating Delhi traffic, which is no mean feat. And although Puri treats him professionally and respects him, Handbrake also serves as a kind of status symbol. Here’s what Puri thinks about it (from The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing). In this scene, he’s waiting for a client who’s very late for a ‘sting’ operation they’re conducting:
‘He cursed under his breath for not having anticipated his client’s poor driving skills. But then what sort of fellow didn’t employ a driver?’
Among members of Puri’s class and culture, a driver is a ‘minimum requirement.’
And then there’s George Pelecanos’ The Night Gardener. In that novel, Washington D.C. police detective Gus Ramone is faced with a particularly difficult case. The body of a teenage boy Asa Johnson has been found in a local community garden. This case eerily resembles a case Ramone worked with his former partner Don ‘Doc’ Holiday twenty years earlier: a series of unsolved murders. Holiday has since left the force and now works as a chauffeur/bodyguard. He’s drawn back into working with Ramone and with retired detective T.C. Cook by this new case, which brings back an old case that haunts all of them.
Fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series will know that she often gets help in her cases from wharfie taxi drivers Bert and Cec. Technically speaking, of course, they are not her employees. But more than once, they put aside their own business concerns to lend a hand in an investigation.
There’s also an Agatha Christie novel in which a driver plays an important role in a case. Nope – no more details. Never let it be said that I spoil novels for those who haven’t read them. But fans who have read this one will know which story I mean.
There are, of course, many other crime plots that are at least partly driven by chauffeurs. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Drive My Car.