In “Big Driver,” a cozy-mystery writer named Tess encounters the stranger along a back road in Massachusetts when she takes a shortcut home after a book-club engagement. Violated and left for dead, Tess plots a revenge that will bring her face-to-face with another stranger: the one inside herself.
Tess accepted twelve compensated speaking engagements a year, if she could get them. At twelve hundred dollars each, that came to over fourteen thousand dollars. It was her retirement fund. She was still happy enough with the Willow Grove Knitting Society after twelve books, but didn’t kid herself that she could go on writing them until she was in her seventies. If she did, what would she find at the bottom of the barrel? The Willow Grove Knitting Society Goes to Terre Haute? The Willow Grove Knitting Society Visits the International Space Station? No. Not even if the ladies’ book societies who were her mainstay read them (and they probably would). No.
So she was a good little squirrel, living well on the money her books brought in . . . but putting away acorns for the winter. Each year for the last ten she had put between twelve and sixteen thousand dollars into her money market fund. The total wasn’t as high as she might have wished, thanks to the gyrations of the stock market, but she told herself that if she kept on plugging, she’d probably be all right; she was the little engine that could. And she did at least three events each year gratis to salve her conscience. That often annoying organ should not have troubled her about taking honest money for honest work but sometimes it did. Probably because running her gums and signing her name didn’t fit the concept of work as she had been raised to understand it.
Other than an honorarium of at least twelve hundred dollars, she had one other requirement: that she be able to drive to the location of her lecture, with not more than one overnight stop on the way to or from. This meant she rarely went farther south than Richmond or farther west than Cleveland. One night in a motel was tiring but acceptable; two made her useless for a week. And Fritzy, her cat, hated keeping house by himself. This he made clear when she came home, twining between her feet on the stairs and often making promiscuous use of his claws when he sat in her lap. And although Patsy McClain from next door was very good about feeding him, he rarely ate much until Tess came home.
It wasn’t that she was afraid of flying, or hesitant about billing the organizations that engaged her for travel expenses just as she billed them for her motel rooms (always nice, never elegant). She just hated it: the crowding, the indignity of the full-body scans, the way the airlines now had their hands out for what used to be free, the delays . . . and the inescapable fact that you were not in charge. That was the worst. Once you went through the interminable security checkpoints and were allowed to board, you had put your most valuable possession— your life—into the hands of strangers.
Of course that was also true on the turnpikes and interstates she almost always used when she traveled, a drunk could lose control, jump the median strip, and end your life in a head-on collision (they would live; the drunks, it seemed, always did), but at least when she was behind the wheel of her car, she had the illusion of control. And she liked to drive. It was soothing. She had some of her best ideas when she was on cruise control with the radio off.
“I bet you were a long-haul trucker in your last incarnation,” Patsy McClain told her once.
Tess didn’t believe in past lifetimes, or future ones for that matter— in metaphysical terms, she thought what you saw was pretty much what you got—but she liked the idea of a life where she was not a small woman with an elfin face, a shy smile, and a job writing cozy mysteries, but a big guy with a big hat shading his sunburned brow and grizzled cheeks, letting a bulldog hood ornament lead him along the million roads that crisscrossed the country. No need to carefully match her clothes before public appearances in that life; faded jeans and boots with side-buckles would do. She liked to write, and she didn’t mind public speaking, but what she really liked to do was drive.
After her Chicopee appearance, this struck her as funny . . . but not funny in a way that made you laugh. No, not that kind of funny at all. The invitation from Books & Brown Baggers filled her requirements perfectly. Chicopee was hardly more than sixty miles from Stoke Village, the engagement was to be a daytime affair, and the Three Bs were offering an honorarium of not twelve but fifteen hundred dollars. Plus expenses, of course, but those would be minimal—not even a stay at a Courtyard Suites or a Hampton Inn. The query letter came from one Ramona Norville, who explained that, although she was the head librarian at the Chicopee Public Library, she was writing in her capacity as President of Books & Brown Baggers, which put on a noon lecture each month. People were encouraged to bring their lunches, and the events were very popular. Janet Evanovich had been scheduled for October 12th, but had been forced to cancel because of a family matter—a wedding or a funeral, Ramona Norville wasn’t sure which. “I know this is short notice,” Ms. Norville said in her slightly wheedling final paragraph, “but Wikipedia says you live in neighboring Connecticut, and our readers here in Chicopee are such fans of the Knitting Society gals. You would have our undying gratitude as well as the above-mentioned honorarium.”
Tess doubted that the gratitude would last much longer than a day or two, and she already had a speaking engagement lined up for October (Literary Cavalcade Week in the Hamptons), but I-84 would take her to I-90, and from 90, Chicopee was a straight shot. Easy in, easy out; Fritzy would hardly know she was gone.
Ramona Norville had of course included her email address, and Tess wrote her immediately, accepting the date and the honorarium amount. She also specified—as was her wont—that she would sign autographs for no more than an hour. “I have a cat who bullies me if I’m not home to feed him his supper personally,” she wrote. She asked for any further details, although she already knew most of what would be expected of her; she had been doing similar events since she was thirty. Still, organizational types like Ramona Norville expected to be asked, and if you didn’t, they got nervous and started to wonder if that day’s hired writer was going to show up braless and tipsy.
It crossed Tess’s mind to suggest that perhaps two thousand dollars would be more appropriate for what was, in effect, a triage mission, but she dismissed the idea. It would be taking advantage. Also, she doubted if all the Knitting Society books put together (there were an even dozen) had sold as many copies as any one of Stephanie Plum’s adventures. Like it or not—and in truth, Tess didn’t mind much one way or the other—she was Ramona Norville’s Plan B. A surcharge would be close to blackmail. Fifteen hundred was more than fair. Of course when she was lying in a culvert, coughing out blood from her swollen mouth and nose, it didn’t seem fair at all. But would two thousand have been any fairer? Or two million?
Whether or not you could put a price tag on pain, rape, and terror was a question the Knitting Society ladies had never taken up. The crimes they solved were really not much more than the ideas of crimes. But when Tess was forced to consider it, she thought the answer was no. It seemed to her that only one thing could possibly constitute payback for such a crime. Both Tom and Fritzy agreed.
In 1974, Charles Bronson starred in a movie called Death Wish. Driven insane with grief and rage following the death of his wife, Bronson’s character goes on a vigilante rampage against street-punks in New York City. The movie became a talking-point ten years later, when an unassuming young fellow named Bernard Goetz shot four would-be muggers on the New York subway. Since then, there have been a number of “American vigilante” movies, including one mentioned in this story, The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster. After being raped and left for dead, the heroine of “Big Driver” goes on a similar rampage. I think most of us would cheer her on. There’s something intensely satisfying about what used to be called “private justice.” But as Tess finds out, things that look simple on the surface can sometimes turn out to be a lot more complex, and by then, it’s usually too late to turn back. So here’s the question: once you pick up the gun, can you ever put it back down? “Big Driver” may not answer the question to your satisfaction, but it might make you think twice about the price of revenge.