I Looked in My Mirror, and a Red Light Was Blinkin’

One of the many things police do (and probably the one most of us are most familiar with) is to regulate traffic. It isn’t a high-status job to catch speeders and suspected impaired drivers, but it is important. And you never know where such a stop might lead.

Of course, different places have different laws about what police may do when they stop someone for, say, speeding. And particular circumstances play a role, too. These encounters certainly happen in real life, and they do in crime fiction, as well. That’s not surprising, when you consider that they give an author all sorts of possibilities for plot lines, tension, and more.

For example, in Elijah Ellis’ short story Welcome Stranger, we are introduced to two men, Garvin and Mac. They’re driving near a notorious ‘speed trap’ in the small town of Keysburg. Sure enough, they’re pulled over by Constable Ashley. Very soon, they’re arrested on multiple trumped-up charges, and brought before a corrupt judge. Without spoiling the story, I can say that all is not as it seems in this story. And it’s interesting to see how both sides deal with this traffic stop.

There’s a similar setup in Alex Gaby’s short story The Crooked Road. Henry Adams and his wife are driving on a country road near the small town of Robertsville, when they’re stopped by Officers Charles Bleecker and Carney Tait. Within minutes, it’s clear that this is a ‘speed trap.’ To add to that, the couple’s car is just about forcibly towed to a local garage, which will add quite a bit to their expenses. The police, the local judge, and the towing company are all in on the scam, too. But things don’t turn out quite the way you’d think they would…

In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, a traffic stop results in a gruesome discovery in a car belonging to Raynard Waits. Based on that evidence, he’s arrested and convicted of two brutal murders. He’s facing the death penalty, so he wants to make a deal with the police in order to avoid execution. His offer is to trade information about other murders in exchange for his life. One of those murders is the Marie Gesto case. Years earlier, she left a Hollywood-area supermarket, but never made it home. At the time, LAPD detective Harry Bosch was assigned to the case, but he never learned the truth. In fact, he missed an important clue and was interested in the wrong suspect. He wants to get some peace for the victim’s family and for himself, so he decides to work with Wait and find out the truth. It’s a complex case, and it shows just how much can come out of a simple traffic stop.

In one plot thread of Fred Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Paris Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his team investigate a car fire that took the life of wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur. The most likely suspect is a local firebug called Momo. But he says he’s innocent, and Adamsberg comes to believe him. Still, Momo does have a record of other arson convictions, and he’s not likely to get a very fair hearing. So, Adamsberg comes up with an unusual plan to keep an innocent man from going to prison. At one point in the novel, Momo is in a car with Adamsberg’s son, Zerk. They’ve approached a traffic stop, and they don’t want any trouble:
 

“New plates, eh?’ he [a gendarme] said.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Zerk. ‘I put ‘em on a fortnight ago.’
‘Seven-year-old car, new plates?’
‘That was in Paris, Officer,’ Zerk explained. ‘Plates were knocked in, front and back, had to change ‘em.’
‘Why, weren’t they readable any more?’
‘Yeah, but you know what it’s like, Paris, if your plates are fucked up, they just think they can, like, bash your car any time they park.’
‘You’re not from Paris, then?’
‘O-oh no. Pyrenees, us.’
‘Ha, better than Paris, anyway,’ said the gendarme with the hint of a smile as he handed back their papers.’
 

Zerk comes up with a very neat way to avoid too much attention, and to keep the gendarme from asking too many questions.

And then there’s Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor. He’s a former member of the Garda Síochána who was removed from the force because of excessive drinking that led to a disastrous encounter with a speeder. One evening, Taylor and his police partner, Clancy, were on duty at a speed check when a Mercedes sped by, far exceeding the posted speed limit. Fueled by brandy-laced coffee (much more brandy than coffee), Taylor insisted on stopping the speeder. Clancy saw that the car had government plates, and tried to stop his partner from interfering. Taylor, though, had a different view:
 

‘‘It’s a bloody scandal.’’
 

Things went downhill fast when Taylor had a heated exchange with the car’s officious and rude owner. It all ended up with Taylor assaulting the man. Now he does private investigation, although he still knows several members of the Garda.

There are other examples, too, of crime stories that involve those routine traffic stops. They can be very effective at building suspense, at providing clues, and at showing character, too. And they’re very much a part of real life, too.

 
 
 

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

14 Comments

Filed under Alex Gaby, Elijah Ellis, Fred Vargas, Ken Bruen, Michael Connelly

14 responses to “I Looked in My Mirror, and a Red Light Was Blinkin’

  1. Can’t add anything tonight, though I feel I should be able to think of millions. As always, I stand in awe of your phenomenal powers of recall! 😀

  2. Col

    Another great post Margot. I’m off to see if I can track down those short stories you mentioned.

  3. Margot: Your post made me think of those situations in Mexico where being stopped by the police can lead to being disappeared. I think there are examples in Cartel by Don Winslow. In Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo the tension of living in Argentina during the era of death squads is powerfully vivid.

    • That sort of thing does, indeed, happen, Bill, and it’s scary. And thanks for reminding me of Don Winslow’s work; I want to spotlight one of his books. As to the Mallo, I think he did an excellent job of evoking that tense atmosphere. As you say, in that place and at that time, it can be dangerous just to walk down a street…

  4. I’m like Col – particularly taken by the idea of the short stories. It is the ideal setup, isn’t, the reader enjoying the ride and hoping to be surprised. I too would be interested to find if they were available.

    • I like the way you put that, Moira. The reader enjoys the ride just as the fictional driver does (at least at first). It’s interesting, I think how that setup can be used in such different ways to make a story work the way the author wants it to work.

  5. I am interested in the Michael Connelly book but it is #12 in the series and I am back towards the beginning. And that is a series I am not going to hop around in for sure.

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