Thursday, December 17, 2009

Murder on the Road

Almost all of us travel at least sometimes. We may travel for business, to take a holiday or to celebrate a special occasion. Traveling can be exciting and fun, but it can often be fraught with perils such as long lines at airports, lost luggage, bad driving directions and hotels that only seem nice on the outside and in travel brochures. I’m sure that all of you could recount horror stories of disastrous trips you’ve taken. I know I can. Because traveling is such a common experience, it’s also a very natural context for crime fiction. We can all identify with the traveler. The context of traveling also allows an interesting new twist to a series as well as a very convenient juxtaposition of characters. When everyone’s traveling, there’s much less need to rely on contrived coincidence.

Agatha Christie used the traveling context many times in her novels. In fact, there are so many that I’ll just mention a few of them. In Death on the Nile, beautiful, wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Traveling on the same boat are several other characters, including Hercule Poirot, who’s taking a holiday of his own. On the second night out, Linnet is shot. At once, suspicion falls on her friend Jacqueline De Bellefort, who certainly has good reason for the murder; Linnet’s just married Jacqueline’s former fiancĂ©, with whom Jacqueline is still in love. The problem is, Jacqueline’s got an unimpeachable alibi for the murder. As is so often the case in Christie’s novels, nothing is really as it seems, as Poirot quickly finds when he begins to investigate the case.

In Evil Under the Sun (in which, by the way, there’s a reference to Death on the Nile), beautiful and notorious Arlena Stuart Marshall is on a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel off the Devon Coast. With her are her husband, Kenneth, and her stepdaughter, Linda. Late one morning, Arlena is strangled and the local police begin to investigate. As it happens, Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel and gets involved in the case. As he sifts through the various lies and alibis that the other guests offer, Poirot finds that Arlena’s death isn’t the crime passionel that it seems on the surface; it’s been coldly planned.

Miss Marple gets involved in a “traveling” case in At Bertram’s Hotel. In that novel, Miss Marple is taking a holiday in London, and has chosen to stay in the sophisticated, traditional Bertram’s Hotel. Strange events soon begin to happen at the hotel. First, another guest, the admittedly absent-minded Canon Pennyfeather, is knocked out late one night after he returns to the hotel from the airport after realizing he left for the airport on the wrong day. He wakes up in a house some distance from the hotel, only to find out later that someone looking very much like him was seen at a train robbery that occurred while he was blacked out. Then another guest, Elvira Blake, is almost a shooting victim while returning to the hotel. The killer tries again, this time murdering Michael Gorman, another guest. Later, there’s another death. As Miss Marple unravels the mystery, she finds out that the shootings and the train robbery are connected.

In M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor, Geraldine Jankers is on her honeymoon with her fourth husband, Fred. With the couple are Geraldine’s son, Wayne and his wife, Chelsea, and Geraldine’s friend Cyril and his wife, Dawn. They’ve chosen the inappropriately-named Palace Hotel at Snoth-on-Sea, a run-down shadow of its former genteel self. Late one night, Geraldine is found strangled on the beach. The police have the perfect suspect – Agatha Raisin, Beaton’s sleuth. Agatha’s there with her ex-husband, James Lacey, who persuaded her to come on what she thought would be a romantic getaway. On the evening of the murder, Agatha had gotten into an argument with the Jankers family, and James had gotten the better of Wayne in a fight. As if that’s not enough, Geraldine Jankers was strangled with Agatha’s scarf. Agatha and James are able to prove that she’s innocent of murder, but Agatha’s gotten interested in the case and decides to investigate it with the help of her team, Patrick Mulligan and Harry Beam. It turns out that Geraldine Jankers associated with some dangerous and unsavory people, and Agatha and her team run into danger more than once as they work to solve the case.

Travel is also the context in Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Wasn’t There, in which a group of residents of Pickax, a small community in the North Central United States, embarks on a tour of Scotland. The tour’s leader, Irma Hasselrich, has planned and organized everything, and the tour begins with high hopes. One night, Irma dies suddenly of what looks like heart failure at first. It’s not surprising, either, since she wasn’t young or in very good health. Still, Jim Qwilleran, former investigative reporter, and Braun’s sleuth, begins to have suspicions about Irma’s death when the tour’s bus driver disappears, along with some stolen jewels. When the tourists return to Pickax, Qwilleran does some investigating, and finds out that Irma’s death is rooted in her past and her associations.

Of course, not all traveling is for pleasure. Business travel can be interrupted by murder, too, and that’s what happens in John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air. Columbia University professor Jake Landau is traveling to New York from Boston. With him is his friend and attorney, Martin Ross. The two of them have been in negotiations with the attorney for Landau’s ex-wife and are now returning to New York. During the flight, a bomb explodes on the plane, and Ross is killed. Landau wants to know who’s behind the bombing, but when he starts asking questions, no-one seems interested in helping him to get answers. So he sets off on his own investigation. What he finds out is that the bombing is connected to a powerful drug ring, and that his own life is now in danger.

Michael Ridpath’s The Predator is also centered on a business trip. Chris Szczypiorski and Lenka Nemeckova first meet during a training program at Wall-Street’s Bloomfield Weiss. All of these trainees are chosen for their competitiveness and their skill, even thought several of them have what might be called borderline-psychotic personality profiles. During the training, Chris and Lenka also bond with the other trainees, and the group becomes very close. One night during a boat party, a drunken celebration ends tragically, and the group ends up covering up what happened. Ten years after the training, Chris and Lenka have formed their own fund management company, and all seems well. Then, one day, Lenka is murdered while she’s on a business trip to Prague, and Chris is helpless to save her. Then, other members of the group of trainees also begin to die and it becomes clear that Chris will be a target himself if he doesn’t stop the killer.

Death during a business trip is also featured in Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor. A deadly influenza-type virus has struck a group of attendees at a convention of the Veterans of American Wars. Dr. Calvin Doohan of the World Health Organization is called in to investigate the deaths, and before long, he’s confronted with more deaths, including that of a friend. Doohan resolves to get to the bottom of the deaths, little realizing that they’ve been carefully planned. He also doesn’t realize that he’s very likely going to be the next victim.

In my own Dying to See You, Craig Peterson, an up-and-coming professor of criminal law, is killed while he and large group of colleagues are attending a meeting of the Criminology Educators Association in San Diego. One of the attendees, Dr. Joel Williams, is a friend of the victim and, in fact, was working with him on a research project at the time of the death. For that reason, among others, Williams is intent on finding out who killed Peterson, and works with the local police to solve the crime.

There are many other novels in which a murder occurs while the victim is “on the road.” This kind of plot allows the writer to gather a group of people together who otherwise might not meet. It also allows changes of scenery and characters for regular series. There’s also an interesting layer of suspense, since there’s often pressure to solve the crime as soon as possible. On the other hand, travel, like any other device, can be overused. If it’s not natural and integral to the plot, it can seem contrived. What do you think? Do you enjoy novels that feature “murder on the road?” Which are your favorites?

On Another Note...

In my 8 December edition of FYI, I made a reference to author Hal White's excellent website that contains lots of interesting resources on "locked room mysteries." Unfortunately, I posted his name as Hal Smith. My apologies to Hal; he deserves better from me. Please do visit his site if you're interested in unusual murders and impossible crimes.


  1. Good topic, Margot. I enjoy it immensely when sleuths go "on the road". Seeing new settings for murder, though their eyes, is lots of fun. Watching them get into a pickle in a foreign land is even more fun.

  2. Bobbi - You're right; it really *is* interesting when the sleuth gets into difficulty in another country, even if s/he speaks the language. New settings can definitely add something to a mystery or series, too.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Christine : ). Bobbi does have a very well-taken point.

  4. Just for once I cannot come up with a good example, unless you count Sayers´ Have his Carcase. I have read some of the ones you mention, but they are not really favourites of mine. (I may have read scores of good ones, but when I enter your living room, it is always Sayers and Christie I remember).

  5. I do enjoy a little road trip now and then. Particularly if it helps us avoid "Cabot Cove Syndrome" (too many murders in a small town for it to be realistic.)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Dorte - I know what you mean about thinking of examples. I thought of about five or six other Christie examples that I didn't include for reasons of space; Murder on the Orient Express, Passenger to Frankfur and N or M? were just three of them. I like your example of Have His Carcase, too. I guess you could include The Nine Tailors, too, since Wimsey is traveling in that one. As you say, though, there are always examples one doesn't think of at once.

  7. Elizabeth - I laughed out loud at your term - the "Cabot Cove Syndrome!" Too funny! But you're right; a series - especially one that takes place in a small town - does benefit from a "road trip." Besides, it just makes sense that people travel. Real people do, after all.

  8. C. Daly King's Obelist novels all have transport settings (sea, train, air) and have much curiosity value for Golden Age fans.
    Thanks for the link to Hal's interesting site.

  9. Martin - Thanks much for the reminder of King's work; one can never think of every example, and that's why I'm so grateful for others' input. You're right that those are really fine illustrations of what I'm describing.

    I'm glad you find Hal's site interesting; I think he's got talent.