My Mustang Ford*

fordAs this is posted, it’s the 103rd anniversary of the first moving assembly line. It was originally installed in a Ford Motor Company factory for the production of the Model T – the famous ‘Tin Lizzie.’ The assembly line made profound changes in the workplace and in production. You can say those changes have been beneficial or quite the opposite; it’s hard to deny the impact, though, of the assembly line.

It also changed transportation. Now, instead of cars being a plaything for the rich, they became affordable for ordinary people. And ordinary people started to buy them. That made permanent social, recreational, and demographic changes in many societies. Now, the automobile is omnipresent, and there’s more variety in terms of prices, features and so on than ever before. Just watch television for a short time and you’re likely to see an ad for one car maker or another.

Cars have driven into crime fiction, too. For example, one of the early scenes in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None features Anthony ‘Tony’ Marston. He’s driving a Dalmain on the way to meet a ferry that’s going to take him to Indian Island, where he’s accepted an invitation. Marston gets quite a lot of attention as he goes. He’s good-looking to begin with, and drives,


‘A car so fantastically powerful, so superlatively beautiful, that it had all the nature of an apparition.’


Marston finds that other people, too, have been invited to the island, and joins them on the ferry. When they get there, they find that their host has been delayed. Still, dinner is served and everyone settles in. After the meal, though, the guests are shocked when each is accused of killing at least one other person. In Marston’s case, it has to do with his driving; he’s accused of the hit-and-run killing of two children. Not long afterwards, he dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, there’s another death. And then another. Now the people on the island know that they’ve been lured there, and that someone plans to murder them. So the survivors have to find and stop the killer if they’re to stay alive.

If you’re a fan of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and especially if you’ve seen the television series, you’ll know that Morse drives a Jaguar. Somehow, it seems to suit him. But did you know that, in the earlier novels, he actually drove a Lancia? What’s interesting is that in this case, the novels and the television show were very closely integrated. Partly that’s because Dexter was very much involved with the show’s production. After the various episodes were aired (showing the Jaguar), later editions of the novels changed the Lancia to a Jaguar.

Some sleuths depend very heavily on their cars. For example, in Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, we are introduced to Los Angeles attorney Mickey Haller. He doesn’t do business from an office, although he does, technically speaking, have a business address. Instead, he has a ‘portable office’ – his Lincoln Town Car. He has a driver, Earl Briggs, and conducts his business as he goes between places. Connelly was inspired for this character by a real-life attorney, David Ogden. I read that Ogden actually drives a Ford Five Hundred SEL, but I’m not sure if that’s still true. Even if it’s not, it’s still really interesting to think of a car as a place of business.

Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole has a signature 1966 Corvette. That’s not a surprising choice, given that he lives and works in car-addicted Los Angeles. And if you’ve seen Corvettes from that era, and you’re familiar with Cole’s personality and style, you may find yourself agreeing that the car matches the man.

Some sleuths drive even more unusual cars. For example, Mike Ripley’s sleuth is Fitzroy Maclean Angel, a jazz trumpeter who drives an unlicensed cab. He’s named his car Armstrong – yes, for Louis Armstrong – and finds his transportation quite useful. After all, if someone mistakes his car for an actual cab and pays him for a ride, who is he to argue? In Just Another Angel, that’s the mistake that Josephine ‘Jo’ Scamp makes. But Angel gets much more than he bargained for when she gets into his car. One night with Jo ends up drawing Angel into a case involving robbery, some unpleasant thugs, and Jo’s very angry husband…

And I don’t think I could discuss cars and sleuths without mentioning television’s Lieutenant Columbo. Any fan of this show will tell you that he drives a sometimes-unreliable battered Peugeot. Sometimes there are jokes made about it, and he himself knows it’s not exactly upmarket. But he loves his car, and it would be hard to imagine him without it.

And that’s the thing about cars. Thanks in no small part to the moving assembly line, many people can now afford a car, even if it’s not the car of their dreams. And cars have become so varied that they often reflect their owners’ tastes and personalities. And that includes fictional sleuths.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s My Mustang Ford.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Michael Connelly, Mike Ripley, Robert Crais

26 responses to “My Mustang Ford*

  1. I always notice cars in TV or films more than in books, Margot. Patrick Jane of The Mentalist drove a Citroen. And there are the cars James Bond drives. With their gadgets. Now I will try to pay more attention in the books I read.

    • I know what you mean, Tracy, about noticing cars more in films and TV than in books. And I’m glad you mentioned those cars that James Bond drives. They’ve got some amazing features, and they’re so stylish, too.

  2. Pingback: My Mustang Ford* | picardykatt's Blog

  3. Howard

    How about Burke, protagonist of many Andrew Vachss novels? He drove a ’60s Plymouth that looked like a complete rustbucket, but underneath that patina lurked a souped-up, high-performance chassis and drivetrain. He fooled a lot of folks with that ride. Including car thieves.

  4. Intersting that all your examples are men – do women have the same relationships with their cars, I wonder? Fictional male ‘tecs seem to love their beat-up old cars – Rebus has been driving the same old Saab (I think) for what seems like decades! But now I think of it, doesn’t Anne Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope still drive her father’s old jeep? I’m basing that on the TV show, since I haven’t read the books yet…

    • You have an interesting point, FictionFan, about the gender thing – and about male sleuths and their beat-up cars. I don’t think the jeep is a major fixture in the Ann Cleeves novels about Vera Stanhope (but please, put me right if I’m wrong!); that seems to be more a TV thing. But the larger question of whether this really applies for women is a good one. I know Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone prefers her cars, ‘small and cramped,’ and keeps files, etc.. in it. But I wouldn’t say she has a real relationship with it. Interesting differences, isn’t it, if it’s there.

  5. Col

    I’d forgotten all about Vachss – Burke until he was mentioned. I like Connelly’s Haller books also and the use of his care as an office is unusual. I still prefer Harry though!

    • I’m glad Howard mentioned Burke, too, Col – it’s a great example. And I like Harry Bosch a lot, too. Still, it does add an interesting touch that Haller uses his Lincoln as an office; and in L.A. it’s credible.

  6. Margot: My favourite sleuth vehicle story involves Russell Quant (Anthony Bidulka). In Date With a Sheesha he purchases a Mazda 5 minivan, going for comfort over cool, and Anthony had me laughing when Russell finds out that his Ukrainian mother has purchased the same van! His van becomes known as the “Babamobile”.

    • Oh, you’re right, Bill! And I’d not thought of that one when I was preparing this post, so I’m very glad you added the ‘Babamobile.’ Not only is it a great example of what I had in mind here, but it’s really funny, too.

  7. Two points:
    (1) Like the reincarnated (and reinvented) phoenix, I arise again from the ashes, but this time in a different form with a different address and a different name, all in pursuit of reading about crimes and punishments:
    (2) Sometimes cars become the instruments of crime. Take for example the rat-colored car driven by Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes; poor Solace Layfield becomes a victim with Motes behind the wheel. The punishment, however, might not fit the crime. Readers must judge for themselves.
    Now, returning to point (1), I am recommitted to seeing how crimes and punishments become themes in fiction, and — of course — crime, detective, and murder mysteries are part of my focus. Perhaps you and your legions of followers have a response to my simple query at my Phoenix-like blog.

    • Very glad to see you back, Tim. And your new blog sounds interesting. Folks, let’s check it out. As to your other point, you’re absolutely right that a car can become the instrument of a crime. There are plenty of examples in crime fiction and in other genres of that plot point, so I’m glad you brought it up. I’m also glad you mentioned >Hazel Motes. It shows that there’s a very blurred line between crime fiction and what people call literature.

  8. Margot, if I’m not mistaken Hercule Poirot never drives a car and is usually driven around, which is not surprising for he is a cut above the rest. Humble as he is, he likes being waited upon!

  9. I can’t note anything productive, so i stay off.

  10. Always interesting to compare the number of US cars in my area compared to yours. Or Vermont.

  11. Loved Columbo!!! Acronym for Ford: Found On Road Dead. LOL

  12. kathy d

    I think V.I. Warshawski drives a car she is fond of and keeps papers and clothes in it, but it’s not a special car. She doesn’t talk about it. I do think that’s more of a male characteristic.

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