Let Me Be Your Mechanic*

MechanicsYou 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Friedrich Glauser, Garry Disher, Malcom Mackay

22 responses to “Let Me Be Your Mechanic*

  1. Fab post! I’d be very happy to have Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni take care of my car, while I shared a pot of red bush tea with Mma. Ramotswe…. 😉

  2. It’s funny, I never gave mechanics much thought in crime fiction, but you’re right. That shouldn’t surprise me. 🙂 Thank goodness Bob is so handy. We have a warped rotor that needs replacing, which he’s doing tomorrow. Strange that you post about this topic today.

    • Oh, that is strange, Sue. Say, do you hear the theme from The Twilight Zone… 😉 – You are lucky that Bob is good at repairs. That’s the kind of repair that could get expensive otherwise.

  3. I really don’t know how you do it Margot – mechanics don’t immediately spring to mind when I think of crime fiction yet you’ve managed to come up with some great examples.

  4. Col

    I can’t recall specifics from my reading, but I’m sure I’ve encountered chop-shops and dodgy garages that dispose of vehicles after crimes have been committed,

    • Oh, there are plenty of those, Col. I’m glad you mentioned them, actually, because that’s an angle I hadn’t thought of when I wrote this post. Thanks for the perspective.

  5. Kathy D.

    Interesting topic, never would have occurred to me.
    I concur about wishing Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni would fix my car, if I had one, while I drank bush tea with Mma Ramotswe. What an afternoon!
    And I’m glad to see Bitter Wash Road here, a good book.
    But how many books actually say, “The mechanic did it!”

    • Hmmm…that’s an interesting question, Kathy. Mechanics as killers…well, they certainly have tools that could be used as weapons. I agree with you about Bitter Wash Road. It’s quite well-written. And of course, if I had to have my car break down, I’d want Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to fix it. As you say it’d be a great afternoon, wouldn’t it?

  6. When it comes to detective fiction, I always think of mechanics as either the best friend of the hero who gets bumped off (KISS ME DEADLY) or the poor sap who gets bent into a pretzel by a femme fatale! Mind you, according to the movies, ‘mechanic’ is also underworld slag for a hitman, right? Fascinating!

    • Oh, that’s right, Sergio! And you’re right; it’s really fascinating. And you know, I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right about the role mechanics sometimes play in the genre (must re-read Kiss Me Deadly). And you know, one of these days, I may do a post about femme fatales. There are certainly enough of them in the genre…

  7. If I could have tea with any author, it would be a toss up between Agatha Chrisitie, Jane Austen, or C.S. Lewis…hmmm…decisions, decision.

  8. Margot, I don’t recall examples of mechanics in crime fiction but I do remember a mechanic or two tampering with the brakes of the hero’s car in Hindi films, usually at the behest of the ugly villain. Sometimes it lends comic relief too.

    • Oh, that’s fascinating, Prashant. I didn’t know that about Hindi films! And it’s a great example of the way mechanics play roles in crime dramas. Thanks for adding that interesting dimension.

  9. Kathy D.

    Now that is another interesting topic. What authors to have tea with?
    I’d say Sara Paretsky, Malla Nunn, Eva Dolan, Gordon Ferris, Denise Mina.

  10. One of the Agatha Christie Labours of Hercules stories – wasn’t there a mechanic/chauffeur who fell in love with the ballerina’s maid and consulted Poirot to find her? I know it was corny and romantic, but I will stand up and say that I love that story!
    And I think Campion and Lugg would be a good pair to have tea with – I think Lugg would make sure there were nice cakes.

    • Oh, good memory, Moira! Are you thinking perhaps of The Arcadian Deer? It’s a great story, in my opinion, even if it is corny and romantic.
      As to Campion and Lugg? Excellent choice. No doubt the food would indeed be delicious 🙂

  11. I have not read any of her books, but Barbara Seranella was a crime fiction author who was a car mechanic and then wrote a series about a female car mechanic. I have always wanted to try her books, and I do have the first in the series.

    And in a book I recently read, Robert Goddard’s The Ways of the World, there is a secondary character who was an airplane mechanic in World War I and also works as an car mechanic. That kind of job can make it easy to get an undercover job.

    • Oh, I would guess it would, Tracy. And thanks for mentioning Seranella’s work. I’ve not tried it, either, but I’d like to do that. I appreciate the nudge.

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