My Old Car Broke Down*

Car Accidents and BreakdownsI recently read an excellent review of Robert Barnard’s The Case of the Missing Brontë from Rich at Past Offences. Before I go on, let me encourage you strongly to visit Rich’s fine blog. There you’ll find all sorts of terrific reviews, crime-fictional news, and much more. You don’t want to miss it.

In the Barnard novel, Scotland Yard detective Perry Trethowan and his wife Jan run into car trouble, and are forced to stay the night in a small Yorkshire town. Their car is repaired, and they’re soon ready to return to London. But that bit of car trouble gets Trethowan drawn into a mystery that involves a possibly priceless manuscript, and a group of less-than-honest people who’d do just about anything to get it. The story is a clear example of the way that car trouble can end up getting people involved in any number of situations.

Of course, car trouble, and even car crashes, are at the very least annoying, and at the worst, devastating. But those situations can be really useful tools for the crime writer. They can serve as catalysts, they can involve the sleuth in a case, and they can lead in any number of directions, something of them truly creepy.

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Harlequin Tea Set, Mr. Satterthwaite is on his way to visit some old friends in the village of Doverton Kingsbourne. Unfortunately, his car breaks down and he has to stop to get it repaired. In part to pass the time, and in part to make the best of a bad situation, Satterthwaite decides to walk to the Harlequin Café and look around while he waits for the car to be fixed. When he gets to the café and shop, he sees an old acquaintance, Mr. Harley Quin. He tells Quin about his car trouble and about the family he’s going to visit. It turns out that Quin has some things to tell him, too. That information proves quite useful when Satterthwaite gets involved in a family mystery surrounding his friends.

As Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors begins, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a car trip, heading towards the town of Walbeach. Unfortunately, they have a car accident not far from the East Anglia village of Fenchurch St. Paul. The two men start walking towards the village when they encounter its vicar, Theodore Venables. He takes Wimsey and Bunter in, inviting them to stay at the rectory until their car is repaired. As a way of thanking his host, Wimsey agrees to take part in the church’s annual New Year’s Eve change-ringing, as one of the bell ringers is ill. All goes well at first. But that car accident ends up drawing Wimsey and Bunter into a case of theft, complete with an unexpected corpse.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, a car accident turns out to be a catalyst for a number of events, including murder. One afternoon, crime writer Martin Canning is waiting with a group of other people to pick up tickets to a lunchtime radio show. As everyone watches, a blue Honda crashes into a silver Peugeot that stopped too quickly. The two drivers get out and begin arguing. Matters escalate until the Honda driver starts attacking Paul Bradley, the Peugeot driver. Acting on instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. This draws him into a case of fraud, theft and murder. And as the novel goes on, we see how that one car accident involves a whole group of people, including Atkinson’s sleuth, Jackson Brodie.

Stephen King’s Misery also shows what a car accident can lead to in the end. I know, I know; it’s not, strictly speaking, a crime novel. But it is a good example of the car accident motif. Novelist Paul Sheldon is driving through a heavy snowstorm when he has a car accident. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, who happens to be a fiercely dedicated fan of Sheldon’s work. You’d think that would be a good thing for Sheldon, and at first it is. His life is saved, and he can rest up and get back to work on his next book. But this is Stephen King, after all. Annie gets deeply involved in the plot of her hero’s forthcoming novel, which is still in manuscript form. When she gets upset about some of the events the story, she chooses her own way of dealing with the matter…

Car trouble also plays a role in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, the first of her series featuring academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourne Shreve. Early in the novel, we learn that Joanne’s husband, up-and-coming politician Ian Kilbourne, was murdered one night. He was on his way home from a funeral when he stopped to help a young couple, Kevin Tarpley and Maureen Gault, whose car had broken down. They asked him for a ride to a party, but he refused. That’s when Kevin killed him. In A Colder Kind of Death, we learn more about that night, and we find out what happened to both young people. It makes for a compelling story arc.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder. Former milliner Blake Heatherington has retired to the village of Tuesbury, where he still sometimes makes hats by special order. In this novel, he gets drawn into a series of murders, beginning with the village newsagent, Harold Salter. That case is being investigated when the local greengrocer, Mr. Davies, disappears. His prized car is found in a lay-by on London Road, the keys still in it. But there’s no sign of Davies. Not long afterwards, his body is discovered in a nearby call-box. As it turns out, his car had broken down and his telephone was out of battery power. So Davies did what a lot of people would do: he went to a call box. That’s how he became vulnerable to a killer.

There are lots of other novels and short stories in which people become victims when their cars won’t start. There are also plenty of stories in which people witness crimes while they’re by the side of the road, or get drawn into investigations when they’re stranded by a broken-down car. Those situations can make for a very effective context for a crime novel, and they can add a layer of tension.

Thanks, Rich, for the inspiration!

ps. In case you were wondering, no, that’s not my car.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lee Dorsey’s My Old Car.


Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Dorothy Sayers, Gail Bowen, Robert Barnard, Stephen King

25 responses to “My Old Car Broke Down*

  1. Sadly I can relate to car breakdown woes (though none with criminous outcomes, though I sometime felt like killing someone momentarily). I recall Philip Marlowe having car trouble in THE BIG SLEEP and one of Ellery Queen’s oddest cases, AND ON THE EIGHTH DAY, begins when his old roadster packs up!

    • I’ve had car breakdowns, too, Sergio, so I have complete empathy for you! And thank you for both of those great additions. I’d left some serious gaps, which I appreciate your filling.

  2. When I first saw the title, I thought of our old car, which did not break down. It was a very good car for 23 years and finally we had to give in and get a new one. Which we love…

    Thanks for pointing to Rich’s review, I love the Perry Trethowan series. I am amazed at how many mysteries are related to car problems, and I am sure that there will be more examples.

    I remember a car breaking down in A Hearse on May-Day by Gladys Mitchell, and someone getting stuck in a village for several days, but I don’t remember all the details.

    • Thanks for that reminder of the Mitchell, Tracy. That’s one example I’d not thought of, so I’m glad you mentioned it. And I think Rich did a fantastic job with his review. That series is definitely one I ought to look to for a spotlight at some point.

      I only wish I had a car that would last me 23 years. You were fortunate to have a well-made car that worked and that you liked for that long. I hope the one you have now lasts at least as well.

  3. In Helen McCloy’s Mr. Splitfoot, her detective, Dr. Basil Willing, and his wife are driving at night through the mountains in a heavy snowstorm when their car breaks down. They put on skis and – after Willing’s wife breaks an ankle – make their way to a remote lighted house and become involved with a seemingly impossible murder. It’s blamed on a haunted room…but Dr. Willing doesn’t believe in haunted rooms. In any case, their broken down car is the catalyst that gets them into the case.

    • Oh, that’s such a great example, Les. Thanks for sharing. Trust you to have at hand all sorts of great classic/GA crime fiction examples I hadn’t thought of.

      • I see that Tracy beat me to it on Gladys Mitchell’s A Hearse on May-Day, which is one of my favorite Mrs. Bradley stories. It’s her grand-niece, Fenella Lestrange, whose car breaks down on the day of May Eve. She’s forced to spend the night in the village – where, she is repeatedly warned, she should lock herself into her room at the inn, because no young girl is safe on May Eve…

  4. Tim

    She’s not a crime writer (well, not in the conventional sense, but if you consider sin a crime that’s a different matter), but Flannery O’Connor makes great use of cars in many of her stories and novels: _Wise Blood_ (hit and run can be fun), “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (roadtrips with children can be murder), and a few others (which I encourage readers to discover for themselves) show readers that automobiles can be great vehicles for all sort of crimes. Sorry, I could not resist such a lame play on words.

    • I liked your play on words, Tim – thank you. And I sometimes think the line between literary fiction and crime fiction is blurred, to say the least. No reason at all not to mention O’Connor if you wish. Thanks.

  5. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Margot Kinberg’s latest post is a good one–check it out!

  6. Many years ago my VW van broke down outside of Muleshoe, Texas, as I was returning from a six-week western camping vacation. A young man (older than me at the time) who looked a lot like Sam Elliot turned his pickup truck around and towed me into town. He wouldn’t take any payment for his kindness. I had to wait for three days at the local garage lot for the parts to be shipped in. At first I imagined I was going to be murdered, buried in the desert of West Texas, and never heard from again. Turned out the folks of Muleshoe were the nicest people you could hope to meet.

    • What a great story, Michael! Isn’t it nice when your faith in humanity is at least a little restored? I’m glad you met some good people who were able to help you.

  7. Col

    Great post again Margot. I’m more familiar with plots having cars as a tool of the trade – Duane Swierczynski’s The Wheelman or James Sallis and Drive.

    • Thanks, Col. And there plenty of good ‘uns in which cars are a tool of the trade. Thanks for those examples. Perhaps sometime I’ll do a post on that aspect of it all…

  8. Once again Margot you show me a side to crime fiction I had not given much thought to. Cars play a huge part in our daily lives so it’s only natural they’d be included in the stories we love to read. Had you asked about how cars related to crime fiction I would have only thought about how a car crash related to a story, now I know there are many other ways. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason. It’s easy to forget, I think, how important cars are to most of us, but they really are. So, as you say, it’s little wonder they’d sometimes be involved when people get mixed up in fictional crime.

  9. Margot, I can’t think of any examples of car breakdown or trouble in fiction, though I can think of one or two in the movies. I’d associate cars most with the body in the trunk. I have had a couple of breakdowns too, but nothing sinister happened. In one instance our car broke down in the middle of a very busy road during evening peak hours. Fortunately, in India, people instantly walk across and help you push the car to the side.

    • You are lucky, Prashant, that people are willing to help push a car when it’s needed. It’s bad enough to have a middle-of-the-road breakdown; it would be worse if no-one would stop to help. And you’re right; the body-in-the-trunk plot point certainly shows up in crime fiction. I ought to do a post about that some time…

  10. Your falling-tree post a while back reminded me of the Christianna Brand book A Rose in Darkness, which I then re-read and blogged on. In that one it’s not quite the car – it’s the tree on the road, which means two anxious motorists cannot get through, trapped one on each side of the road. They swap cars, and by the next day there’s a body in one of them. Great setup, I think we can all agree…

  11. Some great examples here Margot and I’m very flattered to be included! I’d forgotten about that terrible trouble with the Morris Minor. Thanks for the mention Margot. Who knows what trouble will occur with Delilah’s new not-so-new Austin Allegro 😉

    • Thanks for the kind words, D.S., and of course it’s a pleasure to mention Model For Murder. Knowing Delilah, anything could happen with that Austin of hers! I can see any number of delicious possibilities for a story, too! I’ll look forward to seeing what happens.

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