Writing, music, cycling, history, politics, saving the planet
Modern detectives love cars, not bikes. Cars are coffee splashed second homes during long surveillance duties. Cars are adrenaline fuelled vehicles of pursuit. Cars can screech with spinning wheels to escape from some tight corner. Cars have character. They say something. Morse has his old Jaguar Mk 2. Essex villains drive four by fours with dark shaded windows. You can even sleep uncomfortably in cars and emerge disheveled as dawn moves the story up another gear. People in cars can drive and talk, eat doughnuts and talk, hold guns and talk. Cars provide a seat at the center of the action. Writers love cars, not bikes.
I love cycling and so does the main character of my 2nd thriller, Feel.it. For Roxanne, cycling is an escape from fans, freedom and fear. Cycling means freedom.
There are some old school fictional detectives who look very comfortable on a bike. These are the amateur sleuths from the golden age of cycling such as Miss Marple and Father Brown, but those are the days before the model T Ford gave cars the popular edge.
For several decades at the turn of the 20th Century, millions enjoyed the flexibility that cycling brought and writers like Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Simone de Beauvoir reflect that. Literature used the bike as a metaphor for personal transformation and the pursuit of liberty, or a catalyst at the very least.
So why don’t modern crime writers put their hero on a push bike? I’ve asked around and delved into Google, but there simply aren’t many badges on bicycle seats.
Is it the image? A belief that shades of Noir don’t work well with Lycra Spandex? A fear that the hero will reach for their gun and pull out bicycle clips?
Is it a problem with the bike not fitting the logistics of the plot, as the detectives frantically try to cover the miles necessary to close the case?
Are car chases just more exciting than anything a bike can manage?
Other forms of transport get an occasional outing. Poirot has close brushes with death on both a train and a boat, but a bike clearly doesn’t lend itself to that shut in, claustrophobic atmosphere.
Lisbeth with the dragon tattoo has her motorbike and that conveys the same rebellious, outsider image as Chevette Washington, the cycling courier in Gibson’s cyberpunk story Virtual Light. A similar type of character inhabits ‘Godspeed’ although that is more heroin on a bike, rather than heroine.
This outsider culture is the nearest vibe to Roxanne Payne in ‘Feel.it’. She is an actress playing a mega star who sees cycling, wigs and a change of wardrobe as the props in her escape from a life which is constrained and scripted. Cycling is her path to liberty, especially when the death threats appear to come from within her own security team.
My Roxanne Payne is also London urban cool, growing up on a bike just up the road from Shoreditch. Part of a generation in that area who don’t know how to drive. If she wants to meet up with someone incognito, then it’s either bike or taxi. As Roxanne tries to escape her killers she chooses her bike rather than the ‘safety’ of the chauffeur driven company car because she wants to be in charge of her own destiny and taking her own risks.
I accept that cycling isn’t for everyone. I can’t imagine Rebus doing those hill climbs in Edinburgh. But I thought it a real shame that we never saw Inspector Morse wobbling along an Oxford river path, grumbling at the duck to get out the way.
There are some modern crime writers have used bikes as a way of reinforcing the image of the time. A bike in the Grantchester Chronicles reinforces the 1950s feel which itself harks back to an earlier time. In the Murdoch Mysteries a cycle ride to the scene of the crime is an expression of modernity in 1890s Toronto. if a bike worked for detectives in the distant past, why not now?
My boss was on the Metropolitan Police Authority for over a decade and getting more police onto bikes was one of our achievements. Cheaper than cars, more mobile and visible than foot patrols, there are now hundreds of bobbies on bikes in London. The first bikes used were made by Smith and Wesson, a donation from the New York police where Met officers went for training in how to use bikes defensively and offensively – something I borrowed for Feel.it. The bike has established its role in the 21st century policing of London, so why not in detective fiction?
A brilliant exception is the BBC series, New Blood which features a trainee Met Police detective and a young guy from the Serious Fraud Office working together after being rivals on the cycle track. Also, the film ‘i-Boy’ has the hero cycling frantically while tracking a gangland boss through the fast roads of east London. These are not fictional characters doing their bit for the environment, but writers reflecting the reality of urban living.
Please let me know if you have come across any good crime stories featuring bikes, especially modern ones. Above all, has anyone ever heard of the main villain being on a bike? That is when we can truly say that bikes have gone mainstream.