You probably don’t think about them much, unless of course your car won’t start. Yes, I’m talking about auto mechanics and garages. Nobody likes to think about what it costs to keep a car running, even if nothing goes wrong. There are oil changes, required government inspections, and more. If you add in things such as brakes, alternators and timing belts, the price tag goes up. And those aren’t even the most expensive things on cars.
Working on cars has changed drastically, of course, as cars have developed and as computer technology has become an important part of a car’s insides. Unless you are a mechanic (or someone in your family is), you probably depend on an auto repair shop to fix things when you hear that funny noise or one of your warning lights goes on.
With people as dependent as they are on both cars and mechanics, it’s no surprise that we see mechanics figuring in crime fiction. Sometimes they play minor roles, and sometimes, not so minor. Either way, they add a slice of everyday life to a novel.
A mechanic becomes a suspect in a murder case in Friedrich Glauser’s The Spoke. Sergeant Jacob Studer of the Bern police is visiting the town of Schwarzenstein with his wife Hedy to celebrate their daughter’s wedding. Staying in the same hotel is Jean Steiger, who is assistant to PI Joachim Krock. When Steiger is found murdered by a bicycle spoke, suspicion falls quickly on mechanic Ernst Graf. But Studer isn’t sure it’s that simple. He is proven to be right when Krock is killed, too. Now Studer looks into the PI agency’s doings to see who would have wanted both Steiger and Krock dead.
Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress is the story of the murder of Mary Gerrard. She’s the daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the home of wealthy Laura Welman. Mrs. Welman’s always taken a great interest in Mary and her future, even sending her away to be educated ‘above her station.’ Among other things, this caused a rift between Mary and her admirer, auto mechanic Ted Bigland. When Mary is found poisoned, Ted is ‘a person of interest,’ since Mary ended up rejecting him. The prime suspect though is Laura Welman’s niece Elinor Carlisle, who had more than one motive for murder. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. One of the interesting things we see in this novel is the class system of the day. Auto mechanics definitely don’t have the social status to be interested in ‘young ladies.’ Even today, some people don’t put them in the same class as, say, accountants, educators or lawyers. And yet, there’s no-one more important when the car needs service…
In Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, we meet freelance professional hit man Callum MacLean. At twenty-nine, he’s gained a reputation in Glasgow’s underworld as a man who gets the job done right. And in this novel, his job is to take care of a problem for some of Glasgow’s crime leaders. Small-time drug dealer Lewis Winter is more ambitious than is good for him, and is starting to go after territory claimed by more powerful people. MacLean’s assignment is to get rid of Winter. But he won’t do it alone. Part of what he’ll need is transportation that can’t be traced directly to him. For that, he relies on his brother William, who works at a mechanic’s shop. William is trying to stay legal, but Callum is his brother after all. So he arranges for Callum to have access to a car. It’s one of the many details that need to be worked out before the hit on Winter can go off. It does make you stop and think about what happens to your car while it’s in the shop…
Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road follows Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen as he investigates the death of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan, whose body is discovered by a road near the rural South Australia town of Tiverton. Hirsch faces several obstacles as he investigates. Not least is the fact that he’s regarded as a traitor among the other police, because he was a ‘whistleblower’ in an earlier case. So he gets very little help from his peers. Still, he starts by trying to find out what he can about the victim’s background. He also tries to find out who might have seen what on the night of her death. That’s how he learns about a certain car that might have been seen in the area. And that (plus some car trouble of his own) is how he comes into contact with Bernie Judd, who runs Redruth Automotive. Judd is not exactly eager to help Hirsch, since he thinks Hirsch is cut from the same cloth as the other police in the area – police who too often abuse their authority. But gradually Hirsch gets some valuable information from Judd.
Of course, no discussion of mechanics and auto repair in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who features in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. He is the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and has a reputation as a gifted and honest mechanic. He is able to fix just about any machine, especially a car, and is trying to help his two young apprentices learn the same love of and devotion to the profession as he has. That part of his job is not easy, as his apprentices are more interested in girls and popular culture than they are in doing a good job and being responsible adults. But they’re learning. And Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is a good role model. More than once in this series, his ability as a mechanic becomes extremely helpful. And he shares office premises with his wife, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs Botswana’s only female-run detective agency. It’s a very successful partnership.
We may not relish going to get the car fixed. But imagine what it would be like if we couldn’t rely on a mechanic to do the job. They’re just as important in crime fiction, really, even if we don’t think about them very often. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get my oil changed and my fluid levels checked…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brownie McGhee’s Auto Mechanic Blues. Credit for this also goes to Baby Dodds, Campion Jack Dupree and Sonny Terry.