As this is posted, it’s 61 years since the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. As you’ll know, the novel’s focus is a set of road trips. That context – a road trip – is an effective way to explore all sorts of characters, different places, and adventures.
For the crime writer, a road trip also offers plenty of opportunities for misadventure, danger, and tension. And that can add to the suspense of a novel. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more.
In Martin Edwards’ short story, 24 Hours From Tulsa, we are introduced to a sales and marketing director named Lomas, who’s on a road trip. He’s under tremendous pressure, and a lot of it is because he finds it hard to get used to the way the world’s changed. He was always at the top of his game, as the saying goes, but people aren’t buying in brick-and-mortar stores the way they did. Companies need to come up with new ways to get sales, and Lomas is finding that difficult. He’s not much of a one for computers, anyway. Even the routes he takes on his road trips have changed, and that’s hard for him, as well. It doesn’t help matters that he’s also got personal problems. The pressure has been building up to the point where Lomas finds it impossible to tolerate it any more. With all of this going on, Lomas decides to stop for the night at a roadside motel. And there, he takes a drastic step.
Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty & F****d! introduces readers to bank manager Martin Carter, who lives and works in a small, dying Australian town. His marriage has fallen apart, and he is made redundant, so he’s really reached a crossroads in his life. On his last day at the bank, he can’t resist the chance to get his hands on a million-dollar payroll and just chuck it all in. So, he takes the money and makes his getaway in a police-issue 4WD. He doesn’t have a particular destination in mind at first, but he knows he wants to start over. He starts off on a road trip that will involve all sorts of eccentric characters and adventures he hadn’t imagined when it all started. This novel isn’t, strictly speaking, crime fiction (well, OK, Carter does take a million dollars and some other ‘crimey’ things happen). But it does tell the story of an unusual road trip.
There’s also quite a road trip in Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche. Russell Quant is a Saskatoon-based PI, who gets a new client in successful business executive Harold Chavell. He and his fiancé, Tom Osborn, had planned to marry and take a honeymoon trip to France, but Osborn disappeared, taking a copy of the honeymoon itinerary. Chavell wants Quant to go to France and find Osborn. So, Quant travels to France, and follows the itinerary the couple had planned to use. He makes progress, but Osborn seems to stay one step ahead. Then, Quant gets a note saying that Osborn doesn’t want to be found. When Chavell learns that, he asks Quant to return to Saskatoon. Not long afterwards, Osborn’s body is discovered in a lake near a home he and Chavell owned. Now, Chavell is a suspect in a murder investigation, and he asks Quant to stay on the job and clear his name. The road trip through France doesn’t really solve the mystery, but it adds a bit of adventure (and, of course, the setting) to the story.
France is also the setting for Fred Vargas’ Ghost Riders of Ordebec. In one plot thread of that novel, Paris police detective Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his team investigate a car fire that killed wealthy Antoine Clermont-Brasseur. It’s not long before it’s established that this was a case of arson. The most likely suspect is a known arsonist named Momo, who has a history of burning cars. He claims that he’s innocent, though, and there’s evidence to support him. Because the victim was very well-connected, there’s a lot of pressure for the police to make a quick arrest and for the case to be settled. But Adamsberg isn’t convinced that Momo’s guilty. And he doesn’t want an innocent man to be jailed. So, he takes a very unusual course of action to be sure that doesn’t happen. In the meantime, his teammates discover that more than one person might have wanted to kill this victim. In one part of this novel, there’s a very interesting road trip that a couple of characters take. And it adds to the plot to follow along with them.
And then there’s Spencer Quinn’s The Right Side. In that novel, US Army Sergeant LeAnn Hogan is in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. She was badly wounded in a bombing incident in Afghanistan and has been left with severe injuries and psychological damage. During her stay at the hospital, Hogan makes friends with her roommate, Marci Cummings. Then, unexpectedly, Cummings dies. Seeking some sort of solace, Hogan leaves Walter Reed and takes a road trip across the US, ending up in Bellevue, Washington, where Cummings lived. Along the way, she struggles with her injuries, and with deciding what she’s going to do and how she’ll fit in, now that she’s back in the US. Hogan arrives in Bellevue too late to attend her friend’s funeral. But she still wants to pay her respects to the family. That’s when she finds out that Cummings’ eight-year-old daughter, Mia, has gone missing. Search parties are out, the police are involved, and everyone is hoping that the child will be found safe. Hogan wants to help, too, and starts asking questions. But it’s soon very clear that her input is not welcome. Some people are downright hostile; others are evasive. But Hogan is not without resources. In the end, we learn the truth about Mia, and about the bombing incident that changed Hogan’s life.
There are lots of other crime novels that involve road trips. They can be effective plot tools, and they can add suspense and tension to a story. Which crime-fictional road trips have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s Freeways.