A Study in Car Chases

It was a dark and steamy night.

I don’t care much for action films. I don’t mind the odd one, but I don’t seek them out, either. They’re usually full of gears and gadgetry, strong on political intrigue or the perpetration of perfect crimes, weak on interesting stuff like interpersonal relationships or pets.

Besides, I’m onto these films. Every one of them, whether light-hearted or dark and dangerous, puts the pedal to the metal at least once. Wake me up when the car chase is over. Or the plane chase, or the motorcycle chase, or the school bus chase, or whatever — it’s all the same conceit. Why can’t modern movies come up with something a little more innovative? Give me an old book anyday, when the climax didn’t involve mechanical speed.

Imagine my surprise.

I was reading “The Sign of Four” last night. It’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s second-ever Sherlock Holmes mystery, published in 1890. Resembling a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, the plot includes an old captain with a wooden leg, a treasure, and a dwarf with poison darts.

Holmes has figured out where the villains are, and awaits them with Watson and the police in a police boat on the River Thames, guessing that they will attempt to board a ship bound for the Americas.

Will the evildoers take a hansom cab to get them to the quai on time? Oh no, they’ve hired a private launch, the Aurora. Read on:

“And there is the Aurora,” exclaimed Holmes, “and going like the devil! Full speed ahead, engineer. Make after that launch with the yellow light. By heaven, I shall never forgive myself if she proves to have the heels of us!”

She had slipped unseen through the yard-entrance, and passed behind two or three small craft, so that she had fairly got her speed up before we saw her. Now she was flying down the stream, near in to the shore, going at a tremendous rate. Jones looked gravely at her and shook his head.

“She is very fast,” he said. “I doubt if we shall catch her.”

“We must catch her!” cried Holmes, between his teeth. “Heap it on stokers! Make her do all she can! If we burn the boat we must have them!”

                – “The Sign of Four”, chapter X.

Holmes, of course, is not far off from being literal. These were steam launches, powered by coal; the stokers are the guys shoveling it into the furnace. At full velocity, these amazing boats would be speeding along at about 15 kilometres an hour. Wow, a whole mile in just under eight minutes! Doesn’t the thought leave you breathless?

And yet it works. The “car chase” conceit, I learned last night, predates the car. The convention is an oldie, and still a goodie, and won’t be retiring any time soon.

Today’s photo is of a steam launch from the turn of the Twentieth Century. If you click on the photo, you will get the web picture showing the entire boat. And if you’re planning a vacation in the Argyll region of western Scotland, you might want to visit the website of Avich and Kilchrenan, from which I scoffed the photo. The website comprises information on the two tiny villages of Avich and Kilchrenan, and their surrounding countryside. Besides its page on the history of the local steamships, the website features gorgeous photos of the lochs and hillsides themselves — which, personally, I find far more breathtaking than the thought of vehicular pursuits at whatever speed.

7 Responses to A Study in Car Chases

  1. eyegillian says:

    I must have some dog in me — I find car chases exhilarating. (Ahem… not when I’m driving, of course.) That’s a lovely bit of steam launch and the Sherlock Holmes you’ve quoted is exciting stuff. Woo yeah. OK, I’m awake now, time to get those stokers to energize my work.

  2. Mutual friend Jane says:

    The Players cigarette company had a restored 19th century steam launch which you will see in many English period dramas, including the Granada TV adaptation of The Sign of Four which was made in the eighties (that would be the nineteen eighties). The fellow on the Players package was a sailor and the tobacco was Navy Cut. Me dear old Ma rolled her own using Players tobacco for fifty plus years. Ah, dear childhood memories.

  3. lavenderbay says:

    Yes, Eyegillian, it’s another day for a hunka-hunka burnin’ workload!

    That’s a lovely bit of trivia about the steamship, Mutual Friend Jane! And about yer Ma. Come to think of it, my son’s father smoked Players Light when I first met him. Same sailor, different coloured package.

  4. livingisdetail says:

    It is interesting that action sequences always existed in story telling. I guess it gets the plot from a to b in a hurry. I can’t help agreeing with you that it is used way too often at the expense of character and plot development. I would’t mind that so much if other devices were allowed in now and then. Hollywood has huge budgets yet it seems to almost always want to make the same frenetic film with jump cuts and head spinning effects. Maybe audiences are immune to adrenaline nowadays and need more and more action to get their monies worth. I think we need a lot more of the Sherlock Holmes pace at 15 miles an hour to calm things down a bit and watch the scenery.

  5. lavenderbay says:

    I would worry that we’re all getting crotchety when we start longing for the “good old days”, Livingisdetail, except that I agree with you: the few foreign films I’ve seen usually do have a slower pace — especially the Japanese ones, but European ones as well. Think of “Babette’s Feast”, for example, which focusses on an amazing banquet for a whole village of self-denying Protties, or “Life is Beautiful”, wherein the protaganist is dispatched off-camera with one unsensational bullet.
    Then again, these aren’t action films. I must admit, too, that I enjoy Jackie Chan’s comedic romps.

  6. jamesviscosi says:

    Let’s not forget the most exciting chase scene of all time: The great golf cart escape from Undercover Brother.

  7. lavenderbay says:

    That’s funny, all right! I honestly wasn’t expecting the punchline. Thanks for the silliness, James!

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