But I’ve Found a Driver and That’s a Start*

Drivers and ChauffeursMost 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.

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Todd, George Pelecanos, Kerry Greenwood, Raymond Chandler, Robert Colby, Tarquin Hall

28 responses to “But I’ve Found a Driver and That’s a Start*

  1. I can think right away of two drivers in recent TV series in Britain. Very different they were too: the first is Detective Superintendent Christopher Foyle’s enthusiastic if somewhat naive woman driver Sam Stewart in ‘Foyle’s War’ written by Anthony Horowitz. The second is a three-part drama featuring David Morrissey playing a taxi driver who is convinced by a friend (and by the lure of money) to be the getaway driver for a crime boss in his native Manchester. An ordinary person who gets caught up in something very nasty indeed.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. I’d forgotten about Foyle’s War/i> when I was doing this post. I’m glad you reminded us of it. I’ll confess I’ve not seen the one with David Horowitz, but what an interesting story! An ‘ordinary guy’ who ends up being drawn into all sorts of dirty business is a great premise.

  2. As you say, Margot, there are a lot of mysteries in which drivers play an important role. Rex Stout often had Nero Wolfe’s right hand aide, Archie Goodwin, work with a particular taxi driver, usually to evade being followed (and, of course, on the occasions when Wolfe would let himself venture out in that infernal invention known as an automobile, it was only with Archie driving).

    But Stout also wrote a book with a driver as the central character that does NOT feature Nero Wolfe. – Alphabet Hicks, a disbarred lawyer turned taxi driver and occasional private detective. It’s been a long time since I read the book, called “The Sound of Murder” in most editions, but I remember that it apparently involves a case of industrial espionage (and, of course, murder) in which Hicks becomes involved through one of his passengers. Like all of Stout, it bears rereading…guess it’s time to put it back on the TBR pile…

    • Les – On my TBR pile, too… To me it’s good to be reminded that authors of well-known series, as Stout was, also do other books as well. And of course, you’re quite right about Goodwin serving as Wolfe’s driver, although of course that’s not his primary role. I actually like it though that Wolfe has those quirks (e.g. not liking to be in moving things such as cars). It makes him more interesting.

  3. I have a dear friend who’s a huge Charles Todd fan and has told me all about Bess, the World War I nurse. I don’t recall her mentioning a driver, but maybe it’s because he became more like family, as you say. Interestingly enough, I can’t think of a novel with a chauffeur, though I do mainly read contemporary crime fiction. Perhaps that another UK vs. US thing.

    • Sue – You ask an interesting question about possible cultural UK/US cultural differences. I think that in both cases, there are fewer chauffeur/drivers in contemporary stories than there were. And although I may be wrong, I think it’s possibly because fewer people in both places actually have drivers. Certainly people use car services, but as far as private drivers go, I just think it’s less common. I do recommend the Bess Crawford series; I think it’s well-written.

      • Great. I’ll add those to my list. I need more time to read. There’s too many wonderful books out there. I wish I could devour a book a day like some. Hmm… learn to speed read?

        • I know exactly what you mean, Sue. I really wish I had more time to read as well.I don’t think I’ll ever get to reading all of the books I want to read.

  4. Patti Abbott

    The world is my chauffeur since I don’t drive. I can’t remember the last time I read about a chauffeur.

  5. Foyle’s War was the first one that sprang to my mind too – I love the actress’ real name – Honeysuckle Weeks, and I believe it genuinely is her real name too.

    Also, Michael Robotham’s protagonist Audie Murphy in ‘Life or Death’ got into a lot of trouble by being the driver for a, shall we say, less than scrupulously honest employer…

    • FictionFan – Really? That is her real name? Now that’s inventive! And thanks for mentioning Life or Death. I admit I’ve not (yet) gotten to that one, but I’m a Robotham fan, so I will. And it’s a great example of exactly what I had in mind with this post.

  6. In the TV version of the Mrs Bradley series by Gladys Mitchell, her chauffeur pretty much acts as her Watson I think … No idea if this is true of the books though 🙂

    • Oh, that’s quite true, Sergio! And to be honest, I’d forgotten about that, so thanks. I don’t think it’s quite as much of that sort of relationship in the books, but in the TV series, you’re quite right.

  7. Margot: Mickey Haller became famous as the Lincoln Lawyer for his penchant for big Lincoln cars. Since Mickey operates his law practice out of his Lincoln he needs a good driver. Earl Briggs gradually becomes a character not just Mickey’s driver.

  8. My recent read by Margaret Yorke, The Small Hours of the Morning had a driver as one of the characters. Ted Jessop wasn’t a full time chauffer but he was booked every Wednesday to ferry elderly Mrs Malmsbury around to do her shopping visit the library etc. The good old chauffer gets to see and hear things that others don’t and of course there is a lot of waiting where they can observe goings on.

    • That’s quite true, Cleo. And thanks for mentioning that Margaret Yorke. I’ve always thought she was quite good at psychological suspense; it’s nice to see her work getting attention today too.

  9. Keishon

    Can’t recall reading about chauffers in my reading but I know I hate driving 😦

    • You’d hate it where I live then, Keishon. There’s always a lot of traffic, and there’s no really good public-transit way to get from here to there.

      • Keishon

        Yes. I know about the traffic. I live in the fourth largest city. That’s why I hate driving anywhere. After work, I wish someone could drive me home 😉 or that I could fly home in a private jet or something (daydreaming now).

        • I wish I could too, Keishon! Where are those jet-packs we were promised? What about transporters? Where is Gene Roddenberry when you need him?!

  10. Lord Peter Wimsey is someone who with his money and rank could easily have a driver/chauffeur – but he likes driving himself too much I think! He drives very fast. In The Nine Tailors the plot is started off by his driving into a ditch, though Sayers could never let him be less than perfect, so she won’t say more than he was driving a little too fast….

    • Right you are, Moira. Sayers never really did feel comfortable even hinting that Wimsey was less than perfect. And it is interesting that he preferred to drive himself. I suspect he’s not alone in that, though. With the fine cars available to that class of people, it could be very appealing to be the one behind the wheel…

  11. I don’t drive so usually my husband or son drive me, and I hear a lot about how I treat them like chauffeurs. And since the campus I work on has horrible parking availability, it is just as well.

    Very interesting topic. I love The Big Sleep. And I hope to read more of George Pelecanos’ novels.

    • Tracy – There’s not a lot of good parking where I work either. And sometimes, getting rides is just easier. So often I wish that the area where I live had really good public transit. And some of Pelecanos’ novels are, I think, terrific.

  12. Col

    Nothing springing to mind I’m afraid. I can dimly recall reading the Pelecanos book mentioned, but I think it hasn’t really stayed with me as much as some of his other books.
    At a tangent, I could offer Duane Swierczynski’s The Wheelman or James Sallis and Drive – featuring professional drivers that wouldn’t particularly advertise their skills.

    • Interesting, isn’t it, Col, how some books – even by authors we like – don’t stay in the mind the way others do. Thanks too for mentioning The Wheelman and Drive. I’ll admit I hadn’t thought of getaway drivers when I was putting this post together, but they certainly play an important role in crime fiction. I like that tangent.

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