Miles Kington: The curious case of the hypnotic windscreen wipers

The dead man was a safe driver. No other vehicle was involved. And it was raining. Over to Inspector Keith Braid, our resident sleuth...
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As the weekend looms, I am bringing you a relaxing crime yarn. That's right, it's time for another case for the Sixty Second Sleuth, Inspector Keith Braid, so-called because he can solve any crime in one minute flat. Today he is featured in a tale entitled "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Car".

"If it was an accident on the motorway, why do they want to involve us?" said Sergeant Comfort, as he and the Inspector drove up the M1.

"They're not sure it was an accident," said Braid. "Man who died at the wheel, Professor Whitlock, was a safe driver. No other vehicle involved. They can't find any mechanical defect in his car. So, just to be on the safe side..."

When they got to the scene of the accident, they found the usual supporting cast and consequent imbroglio. Local police officers. Motorway police. Flashing lights. Tailback. Drive up the hard shoulder. Scene of the ... Braid kept wanting to call it the "scene of the crime", but there seemed to be no reason for it. The car had simply come off the road and hit a bridge. The driver had died instantly, apparently.

The officer in charge was Inspector Fazal.

"Were there any special weather conditions which might have caused the crash?" said Braid.

"Not really," said Fazal. "Except the rain. It had just started raining before the crash. But the road was not really wet, not wet enough to cause a skid, and in any case, there are no signs of any skid marks."

They were interrupted by the dead man's wife. She lived not far away. She too was a university don. She seemed to take the accident with great sangfroid.

"Do you think she's a cool customer, sir?" said Comfort. "Or that there was no love lost between them? Or that she is still in shock?"

"I rather depend on you for the emotional analysis," said Braid. "Your feminine side is very good at things like that."

"Don't you have a feminine side, sir?" said Comfort, teasingly.

"Yes, I do," said Braid. "But it spends most of its time yelling at my masculine side not to leave dirty clothes lying around the bedroom."

Comfort laughed. Braid went off to question Mrs Whitlock. She was a scientist, which might have explained her coolness. She specialised, she told Braid, in studying human reactions to mechanical stimuli.

"Things like strobe lighting?" he said.

"That sort of thing. Loud repeated noises. Supposed radiation from pylons. You name it, I do it."

"Were you on good terms with your husband?"

She stared at him.

"I was on first-name terms, if that's what you mean."

It wasn't, quite. Braid went off to have a look at the car. To Comfort's surprise he went straight inside the bonnet and fiddled around in the top end. Then he went over to Inspector Fazal.

"I think you'll find Mrs Whitlock is the culprit," he murmured to him.

"Culprit?!" said Fazal. "So you do think it was a crime?"

"Oh, yes," said Braid. "Of course. When it started to rain, the Prof switched on the windscreen wipers."

"Fair enough. But how could windscreen wipers..."

"It's well-known in the industry that there is a speed setting on windscreen wipers which is very dangerous to use. It almost always induces a hypnotic condition. It's not that fast, and not that slow. It is deliberately never used on cars. But if someone who was a specialist in mechanical stimuli were to fiddle with a car's wipers, they could set up that tempo and rhythm, so that as soon as the driver switched on he would go into a trance. And crash."

"I'll be damned," said Fazal.

"I've just had a look," said Braid. "The wiper motor has recently been altered."

"I'll be damned," said Fazal.

"How did you know about dangerous windscreen-wiper speeds?" said Comfort as they drove back.

"I'm a bit of a geek in these things," said Braid. "Or, to put it another way, it is my masculine side coming out, when my feminine side isn't looking."