By Brenda Buchanan
One of my beta readers jotted an interesting question in the margin of an early draft of my first Joe Gale book.
Does the reader really need to know what kind of car Joe drives?
I didn’t even have to think about it. Wheels always matter, at least to me.
Joe drives an aging Subaru station wagon, which says so much about him. (By the third book in the series he’s actually on his second Subbie, having totaled his first one during Cover Story.)
Joe’s a loyal Subaru guy because his job as a newspaper reporter requires him to drive all over the state in good weather and bad.
He carries a lot of gear, and with the back seat down, a Subaru wagon is almost as versatile as a truck. And every Subaru model is equipped with all-wheel drive, making it the all-but-official car of the State of Maine.
If Joe drove a VW, he’d be a completely different guy.
To my mind, choosing the right car is as critical as getting a character’s name right. Take Paulie Finnegan, who appears in the parts of Quick Pivot that take place in 1968.
Paulie was not a stylish fellow. He wore lace-up brogans, wash-and-wear shirts and heavy-framed glasses when they were decidedly un-hip.
In the summer of ’68 he drove a 1963 Chevrolet Bel Air. Solid car, but hardly flashy.
By contrast, as a young banker Jay Preble drove a 1968 MGB Roadster. Forty some years later he tooled around in a vintage Jaguar and his golf cart was tricked out to look like a miniature Mercedes-Benz.
Was Jay a foreign car nut, or was he hiding his insecurities behind such high-tone wheels? You’ll have to read Quick Pivot to find out.
A related technique is to use a car to convey something about setting. Several key scenes in Quick Pivot take place on Peaks Island, where vehicular longevity matters more than style. Jimmy B. Jones—a minor character in the book—drives a rusty pickup truck with spring-sprung seats and a passenger door that can only be opened from the inside.
Jimmy’s durable wheels speak volumes about the quirky folks who live on a rock in the middle of Casco Bay, including Helena Desmond, who plays a central role in the book’s plot but, alas, does not drive.
A lot of the writers I read seem to put careful thought into fictional vehicle choice.
MCW blog-mate Dick Cass uses his protagonist’s wheels to tell us about Elder Darrow’s world view. In his fine first novel Solo Act, Dick describes Elder’s car: The Cougar’s black vinyl top was shredded, the yellow paint tinged faintly green as if it were molding. The rocker panels were perforated with rust holes, but it ran and it was paid for.
This passage also tells readers something about Boston, the city where Elder operates his jazz bar, The Esposito. Anyone who has lived in that city understands the benefit of driving a car with a few dings and dents. Hub rotaries can be a dangerous place indeed for those in shiny new cars.
Cops like Bruce Coffin’s John Byron and Kate Flora’s Joe Burgess don’t drive Crown Vics anymore because Ford no longer makes the longtime police favorite. So Byron drives a Taurus with balky air conditioning and Burgess patrols Portland in an Explorer.
Our Massachusetts colleague Steve Ulfelder is a race car driver in real life, and his fabulous character Conway Sax uses his big Ford Trucks (an F-150 in Purgatory Chasm, an F-250 in Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage) to chase down bad guys in a manner as entertaining as it is intimidating.
No post about the use of cars in mystery novels would be complete without mention of the unforgettable book where the car was an actual character, and a diabolical one at that, Stephen King’s Christine. That 1958 Plymouth Fury still haunts my dreams more than three decades later.
Dear readers, do you notice what kind of car a character drives? What do you drive, and what does it say about you?
Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available wherever ebooks are sold.