I 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.