Monday, 31 March 2008

Cars in Books

To be a successful writer it is important - or so I have been told, more than once so there must be something to it – to read lots of books. Even if it wasn’t important I like to think I’d still try and find worthwhile reading material; there are few things as pleasurable as losing yourself in a good story.

My interest in cars does mean that I take notice whenever they appear in novels. Most people probably don’t notice but getting the details right helps to draw me into the story. Get it wrong and while, if the story is strong enough, I might not give up on the book I will feel somewhat disappointed. Mo Hayder’s thriller Birdman was a superb can’t-stop-turning-the-pages read. The only fly in the ointment was that one of the main characters drove a car identified as a Cobra. This Cobra was no stark, four-wheeled motorbike – it had air conditioning and electric windows. Any sort of winding windows are incompatible with the Cobra shape as devised by AC; there simply isn’t the space in the tiny doors for the window to wind into. Hayder must have been thinking of a different car.


To understand how to get it right you need to get hold of an Ian Fleming. Perhaps not every detail was technically correct but I cannot recall any serious inaccuracies. What he did well was to give a sense of pace and urgency to what was necessarily a lengthy piece of writing when describing a car chase. The most memorable chase was in Moonraker; Bond, in his grey, 4 ½ litre supercharged Bentley, pursued the villain, Hugo Drax, through London and down to Dover in order to rescue the girl (unconscious on the back seat of Drax’s Mercedes 300S) and save the day. At one point an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 intrudes on the action, you could practically hear the crackle of the Alfa’s exhausts and the whine of the supercharger.

Mercedes 300S
Picture from

Thomas Harris, author of Silence of the Lambs, does a much better job. In Red Dragon cars were fairly generic as the narrative focussed on the actions and interactions of the characters. By the time Silence of the Lambs was written Harris indulged in a little more detail; Clarice Starling drove a worn out Ford Pinto, just the sort of car you’d expect a poor student to be driving. In his latest novel, Hannibal Rising, there was a sense of even greater understanding – at one point the young Hannibal Lecter is driving a borrowed van through a rainy Paris evening. To effectively clear the windscreen he had to keep lifting off the accelerator as the wipers worked off inlet manifold vacuum (which causes the speed of the windscreen wipers to slow down as the accelerator pedal is pressed down). It was such an obscure detail, I was deeply impressed to see it used.

No comments: