Adventure with Crime (1962) by Josephine Bell

Adventure with Crime by Josephine Bell

4 Stars (4/10 stars)

“I seem to have got into a way of expecting dreadful things to happen.”

Young widow Frances Aldridge finds it hard to move past her grief in England, where everything reminds her of her late husband. So when her American friends invite her for an extended visit, she thinks a change of scenery will do her good. Instead, it may end her life.

Eager to see as much as she can of this new country, Frances embarks on a long solo bus trip. She meets a number of friendly strangers…and at least one killer. The United States is a big country, but is it big enough for Frances to stay one step ahead of danger?

Adventure with Crime exactly captures the sensation of a ten-day bus journey. There are moments of interest here and there, and some amusing comparisons between British and American society in the early 1960s, but it’s mostly just a lot of scenery whizzing by. Even the occasional moments of crime and romance are kept remarkably low-key. One gets the sense that Josephine Bell took precisely this sort of bus tour of the United States and was dying to document every detail of her experience.

Frances says she wants to see the country. Her idea of that is to see it from the bus and only from the bus. She never gets off, except to spend the night in hotels across the street from the bus station. On one of these stops, in Cleveland, Frances spots a handsome man who introduces himself as Jim Field. He checks into her hotel in the company of a gray-haired woman, also registered under the name of Field. That night, someone breaks into Frances’ room and steals a small amount of cash and jewelry from her purse. Not wanting to delay her trip over such a minor loss, she doesn’t report the theft, and goes on to enjoy a delightful day on the bus with Jim. Only later does she spot the newspaper article: an elderly woman has been murdered in a Cleveland hotel, with bus passengers sought for questioning. Jim is long gone.

Afraid of getting in trouble in a foreign country, Frances vacillates endlessly about contacting police. Instead, she confides in another total stranger, her charming new seatmate Terry Gruber. Terry wears socks with sandals, chews tobacco, and says things like, “You sure observe. There ain’t much goes by you,” but Frances is highly attracted to him. So when he tells her there’s no need to come forward as a witness, she’s happy to obey.

Both of these men will keep popping up as Frances makes her way around the country. She wonders if one of them is her true love. She should be wondering if one of them is trying to kill her.

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As an American, it’s perversely fascinating to read an account of my native land as viewed entirely through its bus stations. Frances is a perceptive observer of American culture who finds the United States simultaneously delightful and exhausting. At times, it amazes her to even be on this trip at all, traveling vast distances so casually. On the way to Denver, for instance, she strikes up a conversation with a young woman who is traveling seventy miles each way to spend the afternoon with her mother, which Frances finds astonishing.

As usual, my companion wanted me to tell her about England and the life there, and I did my best to make it interesting. Like most of the people I had talked to she showed great interest in the Royal Family. I’m afraid I disappointed her as I had others, because, while I consider myself a loyal subject, I do not take an enormous interest in the repetitive activities of those hard-working people. I think my student friend found this rather shocking.

Also like most Americans she was impressed by antiquity, without being at all able to get it into focus. When a hundred years is the total span of history, as it is in Colorado, a thousand is merely a surprising blur, two thousand impossible to imagine.

Yet it rarely occurs to Frances to venture more than a few hundred feet from a bus station, and she never bothers to research the places she is passing through. More than once, it’s only as the bus is pulling out of a city that she learns from another passenger about a wonderful attraction she wishes she could have visited, if only she’d known about it. She’s like some strange kind of vampire, emerging from buses only under cover of night. Only rarely does Frances allow herself to be caught in an American city during daylight hours.

There is one awkward encounter with an African-American passenger, whose “negro accent” is faithfully reproduced (in fairness, Bell seems deeply committed to capturing all American dialects). When the woman reaches her destination, she thanks Frances.

What for, I wondered…I felt vaguely uncomfortable and vaguely self-conscious. Did she think I had been demonstrating on purpose my British lack of color prejudice? I had not done so purposely, and so far on the bus there had been none, anyway. Various shades of skin and obviously different national origins had met and mingled, as far as I could see, without much feeling one way or another. I gave it up and went into the cafeteria belonging to the depot, where I collected an excellent lunch consisting of half a spring chicken, salad, sweet corn, apricot pie, and coffee.

The whole book is like this—attempting profound cultural observations before giving up and just describing the food or the hotel bathroom.

Frances almost seems to view the murders she encounters as another American experience to gawk at before moving on to the next rest stop. Her passivity and lack of curiosity are especially frustrating because she is generally intelligent. She is certainly enterprising enough to leave the UK to get away from well-meaning friends who are hindering her recovery from her husband’s death.

My real friends were very kind to me and said nothing much about the accident. Just told me how the car was lying and that death had been instantaneous. They always say that, though, and it may be true, but even a second can take a long time when there is a lot packed into it, as we all know from the times things have nearly, but not quite, happened to us.

My other friends and my acquaintances and a good many total strangers kept telling me how rare this sort of accident was. Some of them had the statistics handy to quote to me. They had a shining look on their faces as they explained what an outside chance it was that the tree should fall just then, that its great trunk should smash down to the road just exactly at the moment Tom’s car was below it. They looked as if they thought it was some sort of distinction to be killed in this way; as if they thought Tom would be swaggering about the after-world saying, “As a matter of fact I’m the chap who was squashed to a pulp last week by a tree that fell on my car. Exceptionally rare, that, you know.”

This sharp-witted version of Frances is looking for something to jolt herself out of the doldrums. Yet somehow her big adventure gets smaller and smaller, until it’s reduced to nothing more than a sliver of highway through a bus window.

Adventure with Crime is a slightly dull slice of American culture viewed through the eyes of a smart but overly timid protagonist. The idea of murder on a cross-country bus trip is a great concept, as bus travel has a grittier atmosphere than other modes of transport, well suited to giving a vulnerable woman an even greater opportunity for empowerment than she imagined. Here, however, it serves mainly as an excuse for an oddly narrow travelogue.


Adventure with Crime was recently reprinted in the UK by Bello Books, but is now out of print once more.


3 thoughts on “Adventure with Crime (1962) by Josephine Bell

  1. My own latest read was a bit of a dud, though also involving a mode of public transport. Shame you have had a similar encounter, though I’ve never been bowled over by any Bell novel. A story stuck in the claustrophobic space of a bus sounds like it could have made into quite a tense read. Still chuckling at this phrase:
    ‘She’s like some strange kind of vampire, emerging from buses only under cover of night.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yours won’t get on the train, mine won’t get off the bus…maybe Anna returns to England and becomes Frances’ mother. There was a lot of potential with this story that just did not work out. I would agree that Bell is rarely very impressive but she’s usually at least competent and I like that her female characters are more intelligent and career-minded than other authors. And sometimes she does surprise–Easy Prey is quite good and The House Above the River gets super twisted and dark in the second half.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well I’m not so sanguine that I think Anna even got back to England. Part of me still thinks she’s wandering up and down the platform and become some sort of local character in Dickensian fashion. Though I do like the idea of having become Frances’ mother…
        I’ve not come across those two Bell titles, so if I see them reasonably priced I might give them a go, (once I’ve got my TBR pile down a bit.)


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