Man, What a Ride*

Car DangersSometimes, news stories are stranger than anything writers dream up. For instance, a Florida man has been arrested for allegedly throwing a live alligator through the window of a drive-through fast food restaurant. And yes, that’s a real story; you can read about it right here.

As I was thinking about that story, it occurred to me that this would mean that the man in question had to transport that alligator in his car. I’m no zoologist, but my guess is that that in itself was a dangerous thing to do.

And it all just goes to show that you never know what might happen when you get into a car. There are all sorts of crime-fictional examples of what I mean. Here are just a few of them.

In William Brittain’s short story Yellowbelly, two bank robbers, Bryce and Augie, are on the run after holding up the Royson Bank. They’re planning to hide for the night up in the mountainous desert of the US Southwest, but instead of emptiness, they find a small roadside café and garage called Yellowbelly’s. They stop to get some fuel and to get the car’s faulty air conditioning repaired. They stay as calm as possible, hoping that Yellowbelly Dobkins, the owner of the place, and Pete Muggeridge, who works there, won’t have heard the news about the heist they just pulled off. All goes smoothly enough at first. Then, while Bryce and Augie are in the café eating, the restaurant’s radio broadcasts the news of the robbery and complete descriptions of the thieves. Pete acts precipitously and is wounded; now he and Yellowbelly are more or less at the mercy of their visitors. Yellowbelly repairs the car, and in the morning, the two thieves leave. But there’s one thing they hadn’t planned on: Yellowbelly’s knowledge of the desert and its inhabitants. When Bryce and Augie drive off, they turn on the newly-repaired air conditioning, only to find that the more comfortable environment has lured out of hiding a rattlesnake that was left in the car. Here’s what Yellowbelly later says about it to a police officer:

‘‘…a snake ain’t very lively when it gets too hot…I figgered that thing’d stay down below the seat in the shade.
Course when the air conditioning brought the temperature down to his likin’, first thing old snake wanted to do was come out to see what was going on.’’

The snake’s curiosity certainly changes plans for the bank robbers.

And that’s not the only example of snakes in crime-fictional cars.  As John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 begins, Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his partner Pichai Apiradee of the Royal Thai Police are on a surveillance assignment. They’ve been following a grey Mercedes and, for a few moments, lose sight of it. By the time they see it again, it’s too late: the occupant, William Bradley, is dead. A closer look at the scene shows that the car is full of poisonous snakes, and that the victim probably died from their bites. And when Pinchai investigates a little further, one of the snakes bites him, too. Sonchai is determined to avenge the death of his police partner and ‘soul brother,’ so his interest in this case is as personal as it is professional.

Sometimes what’s found in cars is quite a different kind of animal. For example, in Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, a man named Gannon stops at the Quick Stop diner. He has a specific purpose in mind: to ‘borrow’ a car. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in murder, and needs a getaway vehicle. Gannon waits at the diner until he sees exactly the sort of fast, late-model car he wants. When the car’s owner, well-off Frank Carstairs, uses the diner’s telephone, Gannon sees his chance and hides in the back of the car. Carstairs gets in his car and Gannon takes him hostage. But as he soon learns, he’s picked the wrong car. Carstairs has an entirely different purpose for it.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s The Veiled One, DCI Reg Wexford learns that his daughter Sheila has been caught cutting wire fencing on government property as a part of a protest against nuclear development. She stays with Wexford and his wife Dora for a short time after the incident’s made public. One evening, Wexford goes outdoors to move Sheila’s car so he can put his own away. That’s when a bomb rigged underneath the car goes off. Wexford is thrown clear, injured but alive. There’s heavy damage to the house, too, but no-one else is hurt. Wexford spends some time recovering, which means his assistant Mike Burden takes on the ‘lion’s share’ of another investigation, this one of a woman whose body is found in a shopping mall’s parking garage.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ Ghost Riders of Ordebec. In one plot thread of that story, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his team investigate a car fire. Wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur has been killed in what authorities discover is a case of arson. The official theory is that the victim was killed by a local firebug named Momo, who has a record of torching cars. But Momo claims he’s innocent, and there’s evidence to support him, too. Commissaire Adamsberg comes to believe Momo, and takes a very unusual course of action to try to prevent an innocent man from being convicted. In the meantime, Adamsberg’s team learn that there are several other people who had a motive for murder.

As you see, most of us don’t drive around with alligators in our cars. But that doesn’t mean that a car ride is always smooth and easy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a drive myself. Care to join me???


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charlie Ryan’s Hot Rod Lincoln. Listen to that version and the other popular version, recorded by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and see which you prefer.




Filed under Donald Honig, Fred Vargas, John Burdett, Ruth Rendell, William Brittain

42 responses to “Man, What a Ride*

  1. So, I guess the lesson some writers might imagine is this: no crime — no matter how bizarre — is unsuitable for crime fiction. I counter with the notion that life ain’t art, so let’s not get carried away imitating (stealing from) life for crime fiction. In fact, the most primal and basic crimes (e.g., Cain murders Abel and gets caught by the omniscient sleuth — God) are the best crimes. Of course, I could be wrong.

    • I think you have a very well-taken point, Tim, that a fictional crime doesn’t have to be bizarre, or imitate a weird real-life crime, in order to be absorbing as a plot premise. There are other, more essential elements that make a story either engaging or not. That said, though, I think that if an unusual sort of crime is also the premise of a really engaging story, then it can work.

  2. Nothing at all with car rides comes to mind, except for lots of TV and movies with bodies in the trunk.

    • You know, Tracy, it’s funny you would mention bodies in trunks. I could have done a post on just that plot point, because there are a whole lot of them in crime fiction, both in novels and on film.

  3. Not a big fan of snakes, but I enjoyed your examples. About the man with the alligator…if we wrote that in a story people would find it far-fetched. And yet, it happened. Another example of the truth being stranger than fiction.

    • That’s quite true, Sue. People would likely think that sort of thing was too far-fetched for anything except some sort of comic caper story. And yet, as you say, it really happened.

  4. In real life in Australia, we regularly have to check the car for huntsmen spiders. They’re harmless but scary looking, and not pleasant to spot in the midst of traffic…

    • Yikes, Angela! It’s good to hear they’re harmless of course, and I’m not really an arachnophobe. But still! As you say, not nice to find if one’s in the middle of traffic.

  5. mudpuddle

    we live in the country and it’s not at all unusual to find a riding partner in our automobile in the form of a mouse; not as fierce as a “gator, but sometimes they come close… we go through a lot of mouse traps…

    • I can well imagine you make sure to have traps handy, Mudpuddle. Nothing like trying to drive and feeling a furry critter run across your foot! Where I live, we sometimes have raccoons that visit our dumpsters. So if you park near a dumpster, it’s wise to roll up the windows. Those visitors have been known to spend the night in people’s back seats.

  6. Haha! Love the alligator story! And yes, I would certainly be complaining about credibility if that appeared in a plot! The only thing I ever get in the car is Tommy the cat, who has an annoying habit of sneaking in and hiding if I turn my back for a moment, and then throwing a real live hissy-fit when I turn on the engine! Still, at least he doesn’t wait till I’m on the motorway…

    • Oh, what a mental picture, FictionFan! I can just see Tommy letting you know, in absolutely no uncertain terms, exactly what he thinks when you turn the engine on. How hilarious! And about the alligator story? I wouldn’t have believed that in a crime fiction story, either. But really, it happened. Just goes to show you that truth doesn’t have to make sense to be true.

    • Tommy must be very clever to sneak into the car without you noticing – kudos to him!

  7. Goodness gracious, I wonder what possesses people to wrestle with snakes, alligators and the like in cars? I had no idea there was another book with snakes in a car, like Bangkok 8 – that opening chapter has certainly stuck in my mind! A bee or wasp sneaking into the car in summer is a bad enough scare for me!
    I remember during the troubles in Northern Ireland, everyone was checking under their cars before setting off in the morning for bombs. Well, I don’t exactly remember, because I didn’t live there, but that’s what people were telling me.

    • I’ve heard and read that, too, Marina sofia, about people checking for bombs during that time in Northern Ireland. Just the possibility that there could be a bomb under the car shows how scary those times really were.
      As to that first chapter of Bangkok 8, yes, it really is memorable. Burdett did a very effective job with that, I think. In real life, I just don’t understand why people carry alligators and snakes and such in their cars. According to other news stories, the young man who put the alligator through the drive-through window was ‘a prankster’ who did it ‘for fun.’ But that’s awfully far out there for doing something ‘just for fun.’

  8. Ha ha! Fantatstic Margot. This story piqued my interest too when I saw it. As it was a Wendy’s Diner, I thought it sounded like a modern sequel to Peter Pan. I wonder if there’s an optimum size aligator for drive throughs. Joking aside though, that’s seriously dangerous and i do feel for the staff on the end of said Aligator throwing.

    • I love that, D.S.! A modern sequel to Peter Pan! The alligator this guy used was three feet, so you probably wouldn’t want one any bigger. Plus there’s the matter of transporting it…
      In all seriousness, though, I agree with you. Doing something like that is awfully dangerous, and I’m very glad that no-one at the restaurant was hurt. And I’m glad the guy was charged, too. Someone could have gotten badly hurt – or worse.

      • I’ve just had a chance to read the news article properly. Apart from being amused by the reporter mentioning that the man wore his cap backwards – clearly a deviant then – what’s really upsetting in all of it is a total lack of respect for the animal. I’d like to see an 11ft alligator chuck him through a drive through and then see hoe funny he thinks it is. Sorry rant over 🙂

  9. Col

    I do like the sound of Yellowbelly – I’ll have to see if I can track it down. Cheers,

  10. Kathy D.

    I’m glad I live in a big city — no alligators around. However, I think I’ll stay out of Wendy’s and cars. No need to tempt fate!

  11. Margot, I’m always amazed at some of the things people do. Makes me wonder where the guy got the alligator and why. As I was reading I couldn’t help but think of Christine by Stephen King where the car actually kills people and then there’s the movies, The Car, with James Brolin and Duel with Dennis Weaver where the vehicles were possessed. You just never know what getting in a car will lead to.

    • That’s true, Mason, you never do know. And the idea of a car actually deliberately killing people is a scary one. Trust King to be able to bring that nightmare to the printed page in an effective way. As to the alligator, I don’t know where that guy got it from. According to his parents, he’s a ‘prankster’ who just did it ‘for fun.’ Sounds like an awfully dangerous thing to do ‘just for fun!’

  12. Margot, I read about the alligator. Unbelievable! How would he fling it inside the car? Even a baby alligator would be dangerous and weigh a lot. I don’t have any examples. But during winter and monsoon, we are told to check under the car and on the wheels for any cats and dogs sheltering from the cold and rain. We usually start the car and rev up the engine for a while to warn off the “intruders.”

    • I can’t imagine how that guy got the alligator into his car, either, Prashant! So strange!! And I think it’s a kind gesture to warn any ‘visitors’ before moving your car. I can well imagine a dog or cat finding a comfortable and sheltered spot and having no idea how dangerous it could be.

  13. Well that adequately fits the phrase ‘fact can be stranger than fiction’ As well as bombs under cars now we had a recent story where an separated husband and his father fitted a tracker to the wife’s car but that isn’t quite as mad as an alligator through a diner window!

    • No, it’s not, Cleo, but it’s still creepy! And it’s one of those things, too, where the wife would have no idea, at least at first, that she was being tracked like that. Eerie! I think you’re right about the alligator story – a clear example of truth being stranger than fiction!

  14. Kathy D.

    The so-called prankster threw a 3 1/2 foot alligator through that Wendy’s window. He is, however, facing several criminal charges. Guess the local officials didn’t think it was funny.
    Also, this was in Florida, where people find alligators in their pools, sunning themselves in their yards, skulking around grassy areas, etc. In other words, they are plentiful.

    • They certainly are, Kathy. And you’re right; the local official didn’t find it so much of a prank. And, I suspect, neither did the people at the restaurant.

  15. Do you remember those terrible stories teens would tell at sleepovers to horrify each other? There was one about the woman left in the broken-down car while her boyfriend went to get help: she knows there’s a madman on the loose, and hears a strange banging sound on the roof. When the police finally rescue her they say ‘don’t look back…’ The madman was bouncing her boyfriend’s head on the roof. Actually those tales (babysitter on the phone anyone?) were masterpieces of story-telling – economical and atmospheric and terrifying. Oh how our young selves loved to be shocked (and for some of us the feeling goes on…).

    • Ah, yes, I remember those stories well, Moira! They were deliciously terrifying, and we did hang onto every word, didn’t we? You’re right, too; they were really very excellent stories. I still feel a shiver thinking about them…

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