On his way to the British town of New Braybourne, where he is supposed to be studying art, twenty-year-old William (Willie) Banks hitchhikes to save money, instead of taking the train. (This story is set in the 1970s, when hitchhiking was still common, although already in decline.) Willie’s journey with Alf, the driver who picks him up, seems pleasant enough, but when they arrive in New Braybourne, it’s late. Too late to expect that Willie’s new landlady, only spoken to over the phone, would still be up and willing to let him in. Alf makes an offer: if Willie will save Alf some time by delivering a package to Alf’s sister’s flat, a few blocks from the middle of town, Willie can spend the night there. Alf’s sister and brother-in-law are away; all Willie has to do is lock up in the morning and drop the spare key in the letter box. Willie agrees. Alf drops him off in the middle of town with his suitcase and the package, and hurries on his way home.
Willie looks for the flat but misses a landmark, and asks the first pedestrian he sees—Calli, a young woman on her way home from a dance club—for directions. Interest sparks between the two. He tells her what he’s doing, and she smells something fishy—who trusts a total stranger enough to let them spend the night alone in their, or their sister’s, flat? She convinces him it’s not a good idea to spend the night there, although she’s not certain why. Together, they deliver the package and continue on to her flat, where he spends the night on her sofa. (Who trusts a total stranger…? Hmm. Anyway, the romance in this story is squeaky clean.)
In the morning, the news reports a fire in the flat they delivered the package to, and that a body, charred beyond recognition, was found after the fire was extinguished. The police think that the dead man is Alf’s brother-in-law, Stan Bastable. Stan was a fugitive, wanted for his part in a successful bank burglary a few years earlier. The money was never recovered, and with rumours flying in the criminal underworld that Stan was back in town, the other men involved in the theft and several members of a London-based organised-crime family have converged on New Braybourne. They, plus his abandoned wife, all want a share in the stolen fortune.
Willie and Callie, of course, go to the police, after realising that the package they delivered was probably the incendiary device. The fire was carefully planned to make the police think that Stan was dead, and Willie was supposed to have been the dead body. But then, who really was the victim of the fire? And is Willie in danger, if Alf discovers that he is still alive?
Ellis Peters is better known for her series of Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries, but Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers is a standalone novel in a more modern setting, contemporary with the 1970s, when it was published. The story is nicely plotted, but once the question of the identity of the dead body is answered, it isn’t much of a mystery. We’re shown who commits murder, and why, as the story progresses. The unanswered questions become: Where is the stolen money hidden? Who will find it first, Stan or Willie? And if Willie finds it before the thieves do, will he survive?
Despite gunshots and stabbings (thankfully not gory), this isn’t much of a thriller, either. In fact, it feels more like a farce, with swapped handbags, mistaken identities, a confused landlady, and our two innocents, Willie and Calli, stumbling onto important clues. There is a nighttime procession of criminals and police through the town’s streets and back alleys, and a wonderfully comic encounter in a restaurant between most of the players, not all of them aware of who the others are.
It is, in short, a quick, easy, lightweight story, though somewhat old-fashioned, with several memorable characters and a sweet romance. What more can one ask for in entertainment?