A road trip mystery book, what could be better for someone as I, who travels every year to various and sundry locations, just to take pictures of huge muffler men, buildings in the shape of coffee pots, and deserted former Mother Goose parks with discarded dwarfs littering the land? If a Body, by George Worthing Yates, doesn’t fulfill all of my roadside America yearnings, but it comes close. Published in 1941, probably written in 1940, the war hadn’t yet intruded on the happy roadways, and tourism was doing well. People had just begun traveling with trailers. Wally Byam, the inventor and builder of the first Airstream recreational vehicles, was happily in production in his backyard, during the mid 1930s. He sold plans to others, so they could create their own perfect home away from home. By 1942 they were well known on the roads, but once the country was fighting, the government wouldn’t allow the building of caravans–they needed all the aluminum and other components for the war effort. After, Byam went through business difficulties, but finally created a factory full of shiny silver compact caravans that traveled across country, and overseas–he personally shipped several to Europe. In this spirit, Americans began caravan traveling–long lines of Airstreams would gather together for a rally. The Wally Byam Caravan Club would meet and stay at various caravan parks, throughout the states, enjoying each other’s company, holding competitions, and generally bonding. How do I know all this, besides the wonderful google? My grandparents owned Airstreams as long as I knew them, and traveled constantly–everywhere across the US–they had been to every state except Alaska (an earthquake occurred the year they had intended to go) and Hawaii (my grandfather said he’d go as soon as they built a bridge.) And to my dismay, I stayed for a week with them at one rally at a caravan park in North Jersey. I was ten, and the closeness of inhabiting an airstream with them, and a cousin, and being urged to enter a Little Miss something or other contest, didn’t go well. The only respite was traveling via train to NYC and the World’s Fair. Other than that, you could keep your caravan rallies!
As an adult, I’ll kill to own one of the vintage Airstreams my grandparents lived in. Would I join Wally Byam Caravan Club? Not sure about that, lol. In this mystery, one of the suspects has built his own trailer–all silver and sleek–no doubt with plans from Byam! The story starts out on the road, newlyweds Hazlitt George Brendan Woar and Katheren (no, not a misspelling–the author wrote it that way) Meynard Woar are running from the law–he’s in the US illegally, or so a law person who has a grudge has decided, and they want him for deportation. It’s rainy, they’re on ‘The National Old Trails Route from coast to coast -a trip every American should make’–more precisely, the part of Route 40 between Pennsylvania, West Virginia and hilly Ohio when suddenly a man appears in the direct line of their car, causing them to brake, and for the car behind to hit them. The victim, far from dead, seems none the worse for wear, being sodden with drink. George swears he saw someone push the man in front of the car, but his new wife wants to hear nothing about detecting–he’s gotten into loads of trouble before when he dipped into the murder pool, having once been part of Scotland Yard. The accident necessitates a stay at a sleazy auto camp–Mizler’s Mountain View Rest Cabins–Everybody Sleeps Here! The other temporary residents include: a couple with their teenage daughter traveling via car and trailer; a middle aged couple from Wisconsin that rear ended the Woars; the drunk and his extraordinarily beautiful wife;. a single rough and tumble traffic inspector; an unlikely movie mogul and his flashy wife; sullen twin brothers; and the skinny inn keepers, Mr. and Mrs. Mizler. What happens later in the evening sets most on a cross country trek suspecting each other of murdering the drunk, who escaped death twice, one after being hit, another after being rescued from his burning car. The third time did the trick, his car ran into a huge tractor trailer.
What George can’t figure out is who knew whom before, why the widow has become instantly attached to the traffic inspector, why a movie man would be traveling in that fashion, and what the twins, middle aged couple, and family are up to at any given moment. The pace is quick. They travel from point to point on what the roads were back then, including Route 66. The weaving in and out of cars, coincidences of meeting up with the same people along the way, while trying to avoid them, and the knowledge that one of the suspects also knows who George really is, adds to the swiftness of story, and the overall fun for the reader traveling along.
The story gives a true look at what road travel was like before super highways–now monotonous duplicate exits, where you wouldn’t be able to tell what state you’re in unless told. The small towns, woods, farms, cities, are revived, if only for the time it takes to read 281 pages. My grandparents would have enjoyed this book, if they’d have ever taken time from behind the wheel.