If you haven’t had this happen to you (and I hope you haven’t!), you may have seen it. Someone’s pulling out or in, or stopping at a traffic light, or switching lanes, and there’s a car accident. I don’t necessarily mean the sort of terrible accident that causes serious injury; those, are, of course, awful. But even what the police call minor accidents can be nerve-wracking, frustrating and expensive.
In real life, they mean calls to insurance companies, perhaps arguments with the other driver, and the cost and time of repair. In crime fiction, they have all sorts of possibilities, even when neither driver is hurt. After all, disparate strangers meet under difficult circumstances. And, in the hands of a skilled author, you never know where such an accident may lead.
For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, are on their way to the town of Walbeach one New Year’s Eve when they have a car accident near the East Anglia town of Fenchurch St. Paul. Neither man is hurt, and they decide the best choice is to walk towards the village and try to get some help. On the way, they meet Rector Theodore Venables, the local vicar. He rescues Wimsey and Bunter, and invites them to stay at the rectory until the car is repaired. The two men gratefully accept the invitation, and Wimsey is able to repay his host when he substitutes for a sick parishioner at the church’s annual change-ringing. He and Venables develop a friendship, which turns out to be very useful a few months later. During a funeral, an unidentified corpse is discovered at the gravesite. Vanables writes to Wimsey, asking for his help in the matter, and Wimsey and Bunter return to Fenchurch St. Paul, this time with no mishap. Wimsey looks into the matter, and finds that the extra body is related to a robbery and some missing emeralds.
In Alex Gaby’s short story Crooked Road, Henry Adams and his wife are driving along a country road near the small town of Robertsville. They’re forced off the road by a police car being driven by Officers Charles Bleecker and Carney Tait. In the process, they land by the side of the road, with one of their tires in shreds. It’s soon clear that this is a ‘speed trap,’ and that they’re going to be bilked for whatever they have. To make things worse, the owner of the local towing company is in on the racket, and they’re more or less forced into having their car towed into town. But things don’t turn out quite the way it seems they will…
One of the pivotal plot points in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn is a car crash between a blue Honda and a silver Peugeot. It happens one afternoon when Paul Bradley, who’s driving the Peugeot, suddenly stops to avoid hitting a pedestrian. The Honda hits the Peugeot from behind, and both drivers get out of their cars. An argument begins, and gets so heated that the Honda driver brandishes a bat and starts to attack Bradley. As it happens, mystery novelist Martin Canning is among several witnesses to the accident and argument. By instinct, he throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Out of a sense of obligation, Canning then accompanies Bradley to the nearest hospital to make sure he’ll be all right. That decision draws Canning into a dangerous web that involves multiple murders.
In Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit, we are introduced to Sydney paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill. One morning, they go to the scene of a one-car crash. The drive, Marko Meixner, seems unhurt, but refuses to allow the paramedics to take him to a local hospital. He finally goes with them, but keeps insisting that he’s in danger, and so will they be if they spend any time with him. Koutofides thinks that Meixner needs a psychiatric evaluation, and that the crash may have been a suicide attempt. So, when they get to the hospital, she requests a workup for Meixner. He leaves before that can be done, though, and there’s nothing much that the staff can do. Later that day, Koutofides and Churchill are called to another scene, this time the death of a man who fell under a commuter train. When they discover that the victim is Meixner, it seems at first that he finally succeeded at killing himself. But New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi wonders whether Meixner was right about being in danger. If he was, then this could be a murder. So, she and her police partner, Murray Shakespeare, work to find out the truth behind Meixner’s life and death.
David Housewright’s Unidentified Woman No. 15 begins with a car accident – well, a series of them. One day, former St. Paul police detective Rushmore McKenzie and his partner, Nina Truhler, are on the snow-covered road between Minneapolis and St. Paul, when a pickup truck cuts in front of them. As they watch, a man gets into the bed of the truck, opens the gate, and dumps the body of a young woman out the back. McKenzie brakes suddenly to avoid hitting the woman, and unwittingly starts a chain reaction of accidents. By the time the road is clear again, the truck is gone. The woman, though, is alive, and is rushed to the nearest hospital, where she slowly starts to heal from her injuries. She doesn’t remember her name, though, or the accident, or much of anything. Still, it’s clear that she’s in danger, and St. Paul Police Commissioner Bobby Dunstan asks McKenzie to look after her until she’s well. He agrees, and the woman settles in. But before long, they’re all involved in a case of theft and multiple murders.
See what I mean? Even a fender-bender can lead in any sort of direction in a crime novel. I’m sure you can think of more examples than I can. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, neither vehicle that you see in the ‘photo belongs to me.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Madness’ Driving in My Car.