I’m always telling my creative writing students that the objects characters have with them help to define who they are to the readers. With mystery, crime, and suspense, the object that often defines characters most clearly are the cars they drive.
Want to nail down characters’ strengths or weakness? Put them in a car that sticks out.
Below is a list of some of the best and worst cars in film, television, and books.
Great: Thomas Magnum’s Ferrari is the perfect symbol for the character and a fun car too. In Freudian terms, Magnum P.I. was the story of a superego trying desperately to be an id and failing. What? He was a person who lived by a code and followed rules, but after the horrors of Vietnam, he was trying to break out of that role, but it was his code that saved him every time. The Ferrari was the ultimate expression of that desire and of the failure too. It was a free sports car, but it came with all of Higgins’s rules.
Terrible: Kinsey Milhone’s broken down VW. Sue Grafton’s novels are set permanently in the mid-1980s with Kinsey right at the start of her career. The car reflects her lack of money, and the car is always reliable but right on the edge. This is also a perfect metaphor for Kinsey, that great character who is so wonderfully reliable but always in danger.
Great: Steve McQueen’s mustang in Bullet. Never has anyone been cooler than Steve McQueen, and never has there been a cooler car. Both were stronger than everything out there, faster, better. Never has a chase scene been more exciting than McQueen on the streets of San Francisco.
Great: Nick Mancuso’s stingray in the short lived television show Stingray. I cannot remember anything about that show except how great the car was. I suppose that means the show wasn’t strong, but I’ve dreamed about owning that car. How well does it reflect the character? I admit defeat here. I can’t remember anything that happened in any episode.
Terrible: Gus’s Blueberry in Psych. Gus drives his company 2002 Toyota Echo, which is a perfectly good car. It’s reliable, but it helps to highlight that these two are not action stars in any way. The scenes that capture them the best are when they see a murder and go running away squealing in horror.
Great: Nero Wolfe’s ever shifting collection of cars. Because Wolfe keeps himself rich and he’s terrified of contraptions, Archie Goodwin goes out and buys new cars to keep Wolfe’s paranoia at a minimum. Each year, they have a new Heron or Rolls Royce, cars that will keep Wolfe safe and fuel Goodwin’s sense of style.
Great: Mike Hammer’s Jaguar in Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve never liked Mike Hammer. He’s too evil, takes too dim a view on humanity. He’s nearly impossible to like except for those moments when I want to feel some schadenfreude for the bad guys, and those moments are few and far between. His Jaguar captures his personality though. It’s tough and fast, and he’s always pushing it to the edge. Say what you want about Hammer, the man knew his cars.
Great: Jim Rockford’s brown Firebird. To me, this was more iconic than Magnum’s car. It’s a sports car, yes, but really the best car a person who has almost no money can afford. It never breaks down or gives up, like Rockford himself, who keeps going even when he’s thrown into prison.
Terrible: Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy’s collection of broken down cars. Lovejoy is an antiques dealer, so he never has much money, but he always needs to transport his goods. Generally he has old trucks he’s afraid to push over twenty miles an hour. Luckily he’s generally in the middle of an affair with any one of a number of rich women who are always willing to give him a lift.
Having started this list, I realize that I could go on for days. I’m missing cars and detectives that I love here, but where to end? The car is so often a vital character in detective fiction. Who am I blatantly missing? What cars do you love and love to hate?