Category Archives: Donald Honig

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.

 

 

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

Where All the Locals Go to Keep Each Other Company*

DinersA lot of people take road trips, and if you’re going to take any kind of a long drive, that means stopping now and again for fuel, food, and so on. Those roadside places can seem like oases, especially if it’s late or the weather is bad. And they’re really effective contexts for murder stories if you think about it. There’s a disparate group of people, any of whom could be at that particular place for any number of reasons. And then there are the people who own and work at such places. They too have their stories. And it’s only natural that sleuths would go to those places too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In G.K. Chesterton’s The Blue Cross, a French police detective named Valentin is pursuing a thief named Flambeau who’s managed to elude police. Valentin has traced his quarry to England, but he doesn’t know where Flambeau might be holed up. Valentin stops at a restaurant almost at random and places his order. When he notices that the salt-cellar is full of sugar and the sugar-basin full of salt, he asks the waiter about it. The waiter’s answer gives Valentin an interesting clue as to what’s happened to Flambeau. He doesn’t understand the significance of the clue at the time, but later, we find out that it has important meaning. So does the soup that was thrown at the wall at the same restaurant…

Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, for instance, takes place at the Quick Stop Diner. A man named Gannon goes there with a specific purpose in mind. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in murder, and now he needs a car to make his getaway. He waits at the diner until just the right kind of patron comes in. His target is Lee Carstairs, who’s doing well enough financially to have a fast, late-model car. While Carstairs uses the diner’s telephone, Gannon hides in the back seat of Carstairs’ car. But Gannon soon learns that he’s picked the wrong car. Carstairs has other plans for his car that change everything for Gannon…

In Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson is taking some time away from her job to deal with the traumatic incidents of The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). While she’s there, she and a colleague happen to stop at the Last Chance Diner, very nondescript sort of roadside place made from a converted car workshop. For a time, Martinsson actually works there as she begins to put the pieces of her life together again. She gets involved in a murder case when a priest Mildred Nilsson is murdered. Martinsson has the thankless task of working with the Church of Sweden to arrange for the house Nilsson had been living in with her husband to be transferred back to church hands.  Police detectives Ana-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder, and they begin with Nilsson’s family and then her congregants. That’s where the Last Stop Diner comes in very handy. It turns out that several of the locals eat there, and their interactions play an important role in the novel.

Much of Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride) takes place in the Norwegian village of Elvestad, where Gunder Jormann has lived most of his life. He’s no longer a young man, but he’s still presentable and hard-working – the steady type. So he is hoping to find a wife, and makes the surprising announcement to his sister Marie that he’s going to look for a bride in India. Despite her misgivings, Jormann goes to Mumbai where he meets Poona Bai, who works at a café there. He’s taken with her and it’s not long before she agrees to marry him. Jormann returns to Elvestad to prepare for his bride’s arrival, while Poona stays behind to tie up the proverbial loose ends of her life in India. On the day of her arrival, Jormann’s sister is in a terrible car accident, so he can’t go to the airport to meet Poona. He delegates that duty to a friend, but the two miss each other. Poona never arrives at Jormann’s home, and when her body is later found in a field near Elvestad, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. Elvestad has a small café/restaurant that serves as a roadside stop as well. The locals tend to congregate there, and without spoiling the novel, I can say that it plays an important role in the novel. So does the gossip that readers pick up there…

There’s also Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967. In that novel, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is recovering from a personal loss and a terrible car accident. He’s getting back on his feet again when his friend (if you can all him that) Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander asks him to find a young Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts with some of the area’s hippie places. He finds out that a young White woman named Coco might know something about the young man’s disappearance, so he tracks her down. In one scene in the novel, he and Coco go to Pete and Petra’s Diner where they place their order. Rawlins asks her to tell him a little about herself. When she asks why, Rawlins says,

 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’

 

To Rawlins, who’s seen more than his share of bigotry, this is a major change in society. But as he soon learns, not everyone has moved on with the times. A white man named Lucas goes up to their table and makes several racist comments. Rawlins is not one to meekly submit to abuse, so he’s more than willing to fight, especially when the man is disrespectful to Coco. The trip to the diner doesn’t solve the mystery. But it’s a fascinating look at the changing times of the late 1960’s.

And then there’s Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole. In that novel, the body of Corporal Shareef Smith is discovered at a roadside stop on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway. At first it looks like suicide, but his car was ransacked, and there’s other evidence too that suggests that this was murder. The evidence shows that he was on his way to Sea Haven, New Jersey, and Sea Haven police detectives John Ceepak and Danny Boyle investigate the case. In this instance, they only have one day to find out who killed the victim, because Shareef’s boss Sergeant Dale Dixon is determined to carry out justice in his own way if the police don’t solve the case quickly.

And that’s the thing about those roadside stops and diners. They attract all kinds of people. Seedy or clean, remote or just outside of town, they are fascinating places on a lot of levels. And they do make excellent contexts for crime stories. Oh, wait, there’s a sign up ahead. Want to stop for a bit?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s House of Blue Light.

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Filed under Åsa Larsson, Chris Grabenstein, Donald Honig, G.K. Chesterton, Karin Fossum, Walter Mosley

Little to Win and Nothing to Lose*

Nothing to LoseMost people weigh the consequences of what they’re going to do, at least a little, before they do it. And that’s what can make it so dangerous when people feel they have nothing to lose. That belief can push people to do some awfully dangerous and sometimes terrible things. In crime fiction, characters who feel they have nothing to lose can add to the suspense of a story, though.

For instance, in Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, a man named Gannon goes into the Quick Stop diner with a specific purpose in mind. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in a murder and now he needs to ‘borrow’ a getaway car. He waits at the diner until he sees exactly the kind of car he wants. The driver is Lee Carstairs, who’s doing well financially and who drives a fast, late-model car. Carstairs uses the telephone and while he’s doing so Gannon takes his chance and hides in the back seat of the car. But as he soon finds out, he’s picked the wrong car. As it turns out, Carstairs has other plans with his car and we learn that he has nothing to lose by carrying them out.

In Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors, we meet LAPD homicide cop Shane Scully. One night he gets a frantic call from Barbara Molar, wife of Scully’s former partner Ray Molar. Barbara says that Ray is trying to kill her and begs Scully to help. Scully races over to the Molar home in time to save Barbara, but Molar shoots at him. Scully shoots back to defend himself. Molar’s bullet misses; Scully’s hits its mark. At first Scully thinks that what happened will be dealt with in a routine Internal Affairs investigation. After all, it was a ‘clean’ hit. But soon Scully finds himself a pariah on the force, since Molar was a beloved cop. Then it becomes clear that this is not going to be a routine investigation. The Internal Affairs authorities are planning to take Scully’s badge and perhaps charge him with murder. Scully knows now that this is far bigger than just a questionable shooting. He starts to ask more questions and finds himself targeted by some very powerful and corrupt people. Now, with little left to lose professionally, Scully goes to great lengths to try to find out who is targeting him and why.

In Robin Cook’s Seizure, we are introduced to U.S. Senator Ashley Butler. He’s been a strong force against stem cell and other kinds of controversial medical procedures and research. But everything changes completely when he is diagnosed with Parkinson ’s disease. He knows that unless he gets some kind of medical miracle, he’ll never be able to achieve his goal of becoming president. In a professional sense he has much to lose. But he has nothing to lose at all by pursuing a cure and for that he contacts Dr. Daniel Lowell. Lowell’s been conducting promising research and has pioneered a controversial surgical procedure that may be exactly what Butler needs. So together, Butler and Lowell go to extraordinary (and very, very dangerous) lengths to perform the surgery. One of the dangers for instance is that the clinic chosen for the procedure is the Wingate Clinic, located in the Bahamas. The owners of that clinic are guilty of several legal and ethical violations and when Lowell and his co-worker Stephanie D’Agostino discover that, they also find that they are in real danger of their lives.

In C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, Travel Development Specialist Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the proud and happy adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. Everything changes though when they learn that Angelina’s biological father Garret Moreland never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. The McGuanes are devastated by this news and they decide to do what they can to keep their daughter. They face difficult odds though. First, Moreland’s father is a powerful local judge who is determined that Angelina will be given to his son. In fact he starts off by basically trying to buy the McGuanes’ co-operation. When that doesn’t work he uses his authority and orders the McGuanes to relinquish custody of Angelina in 21 days. With nothing much to lose, Jack McGuane decides to do whatever it takes to keep his child. ‘Whatever it takes’ turns out to be more than either McGuane bargained for but to them, there is no real choice.

We also see get that sense of ‘nothing left to lose’ in Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt. In that novel, Kiruna police inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her partner Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder of local priest Mildred Nilsson. Attorney Rebecka Martinsson works with Nilsson’s widower to arrange for the return of their house to the Swedish Church so she gets involved in the investigation too. Nilsson had some controversial views and was not at all afraid to share them. So there’s more than one suspect in this case. But slowly, Martinsson and the police get to the truth. In this novel, the murderer is a person who has nothing left to lose, or so it seems to that person. That sense of desperation is part of what drives the killer on instead of stopping before the murder is committed.

Lindy Cameron’s Redback is the story of a crack team of Australian retrieval specialists called Redback. They’re called in when people need to be rescued from extremely dangerous situations and that’s exactly what happens on the Pacific island of Laui. The island is hosting the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference when a group of rebels disrupts the meeting and takes the delegates hostage. Team Redback, led by Bryn Gideon, is called in and rescues the conferees. It’s not long before that incident is connected to a terrible train explosion, two murders and an explosion on a U.S. military base. As it turns out, a shadowy group of terrorists is using a video game called Global WarTek to recruit members and give instructions. Several local terrorist groups with nothing to lose and a lot of fanaticism are only too happy to follow those instructions. So Gideon and her team have their proverbial work cut out for them as they go up against a group that’s not supposed to even exist.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace tells the story of Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She is dealing with the horrible trauma of having lost her beloved husband Stefan in a diving incident. Otherwise, though, she’s managing her life – more or less. Then one day she gets a chilling letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. Other incidents happen too, all of them designed to frighten and discredit her. Then one day she discovers the body of a patient Sara Matteus in the water near her home. As if that’s not bad enough, the death is made to look like a suicide for which Bergman is responsible. When the evidence shows that Matteus was murdered, the police even wonder whether Bergman might have committed the crime. In order to clear her name and save her own life, Bergman has to find out who is responsible for the murder and for stalking her. It turns out that the killer acted out of a sense of desperation and the belief that there was nothing to lose. While that’s not precisely the killer’s motive, it does drive the killer ‘over the edge.’

And that’s the thing about having nothing to lose. It can also mean one has nothing to keep one from pushing the limits and doing things that can turn tragic.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from  Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermint.

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Filed under Åsa Larsson, Åsa Träff, C.J. Box, Camilla Grebe, Donald Honig, Lindy Cameron, Robin Cook, Stephen J. Cannell