A 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.