As 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.