Monday, July 30, 2012

The Mystery Writer Buys A Mustang

Which a pretty good jumping-off point for today's post. At least I hope so. If it isn't, then I am flat out of ideas.

I have never really considered myself a "car guy". I don't subscribe to magazines that focus on exotic cars; have never even bought one. In fact, I don't know all that much about cars. I can toss off comments about my new "wheels", and point out that the thing is a 2013 model with the Pony package, has a V-6, 305 hp engine, and some kind of racing-car suspension. All of which, btw, feels really good. A small push on the accelerator (called a gas pedal, when I was young) produces a pleasing "vroom", and the car shoots ahead like a startled cheetah. I was going to write 'gazelle', but decided that would convey the wrong impression. Cheetahs, after all, hunt gazelles for a living, and dine on them after the kill. It's important to convey the correct impression.

My car appears to have only slightly fewer electronic marvels than the earlier models of the Space Shuttle. I have not begun to explore them. I will add here that my partner, Suzanne, purchsed an iPhone at about the same time as I came home in my new Mustang. I can report that she has sorted out the many wonders of her new toy in vastly greater depth than I have mine. My one brave foray into the electronics of the thing was to attempt to program one of the three remotes on the car's dashboard overhead to open Suzanne's garage door. But all I managed to do was to de-program all of the functioning remotes for the door, after which none of them worked. That brought me some stern looks from my lady. And to a hasty consultation of the garage door manuals to set things right again. Which, thank whomever, I did - with help - manage to accomplish. So much for the vaunted male superiority in all things technical.

So what does this new beastie of mine look like? Well, something like this:

ford mustang v6 pony package picture

The colour isn't quite right, but it's close enough.

My disclaimer to not being a "car guy" has to be balanced off by the fact that when I created the protagonist for my three novels, Inspector Eric Stride of the Newfoundland Constabulary, I decided that Stride should drive a cool car. So I gave him a 1938 MG-TA. Even if the roads in 1947 Newfoundland - including in the island's capital St. John's - were rough at best, and vestigial at worst, I wanted my guy to have said cool car. I made a note in the first book, where Stride and his wheels were introduced, that he'd had the car's suspension modified to deal with local conditions. I have no idea what a 'modified suspension' might entail, but there it is nonetheless.

Stride's MG-TA looks something like this:


A very cool car, and appropriate for a man of the world such as Stride, even if he lives in a kind of semi-colonial backwater of North America.

Unhappily, though, I failed badly in the first major duty of any writer who decides to write about historical things. I did manage to research what life was like in St. John's in 1947; having grown up in that period, I had a lot of personal memories to draw on, and people to talk to, to fill in the gaps and miscellaneous details. What I did not know, even with some internet researching, was very much about the MG. Pictures were easy enough to find - see above - but the smaller details were absent. Hence, in a chapter in the first book, Undertow, I have Stride opening the 'boot' of his MG and taking out some gear for a hike across rough ground in search of a murder suspect. Sadly, the 1938 MG did not have a boot. What I thought was a boot - 'trunk' in North American parlance - a rectangular structure attached to the rear of the car, was in fact a gas tank. A second mistake in the same book, different chapter, has Stride rolling down the window on the driver's side. The window of an MG of that era does not have a handle, but is raised and lowered with a strap.

I am not the only mystery writer to make silly errors of detail, though. I once heard P.D. James give a talk in Ottawa, where she fessed up to having given a motorcycle in one of her books a reverse gear; which only one or two exotic models actually have, but not the one that she included in her story.

A final note on the Mustang. Last night at dinner, Suzanne asked where the name came from. I dug into my (frequently faulty) memory and came up with wild horses in the American southwest, probably horses descended from the domesticated animals brought to the 'New World' by the Spanish, which had run away and gone wild. (The question conjured up a memory of the 1961 film with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, The Misfits; screenplay by Arthur Miller, who I think was married to Monroe at the time. The film is memorable for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it was the last one for the two stars, Monroe and Gable.) The origin of the mustang name, though, was something I did not know. So I consulted my very trusty online etymology site, and found that 'mustang' derives from the Spanish, mestengo, for an animal that strays or is 'wild and ownerless'. You can read about that here:

Having decided to write about my own Mustang, and to include a note on Eric Stride's MG-TA, I thought it would be appropriate to branch out a little and add something about two of the most famous cars in films, each of which has a connection to mystery writing.

The first, and very obvious, choice is Steve McQueen's Mustang from the now-classic 1968 crime flick, Bullitt.

Reproduction of a movie poster. To the right, there's an image of a man's torso that is reminiscent of the black and white photographs in newspapers. The man is leaning towards the viewer with his left arm. He's wearing a black shirt and a holster on his left shoulder; there's a large pistol in the holster. Printed lettering runs down the left of the poster. It reads (from top to bottom) "Steve McQueen" (prominent), "Bullitt" (prominent), and then with less and less prominence, "Robert Vaughn", "Jacqueline Bisset", "Don Gordon", "Robert Duvall", "Simon Oakland", "Norman Fell", and "Technicolor". Along the bottom of the poster, and beneath the torso image and the lettering, there's an artist's sketch in black and white of two cars, one chasing the other. The artist has superimposed several drawings of each car on top of each other to indicate the high speeds of the cars. Additional lettering runs along the very bottom of the poster, but is illegibly small in this reproduction.

The film, as most readers will probably know, has one of the greatest car-chase sequences in all of film history. And it is - as the chap who sold me my Mustang pointed out - especially noteworthy because it did not involve 'special effects', meaning the computer-generated imagery that characterises so much that we see on the screen today. The cars were driven on real streets in San Francisco, by real drivers.

Bullitt's car, btw, was a 1968 Highland Green V8 Mustang GT 390 Fastback. And it looks like this:

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt replica.

To view the famous chase sequence from Bullitt, go here:

An equally famous car associated with mystery writing and filming is Inspector Morse's Jaguar. Like Bullitt's Mustang, Morse's car has an enduring glamour and appeal.


The car, a 1960 Mark 2 Jaguar, was purchased by Carlton TV specifically for the Morse series - the series written by author Colin Dexter who, Hitchcock-like, makes cameo appearances in many of the episodes - and it appears in all 33 episodes, including the last, filmed in November 2000. Since the end of the series, the car has been restored, and has had a number of owners; the most recent being Ian Berg. Mr. Berg has stated that the car will, in effect, remain in the public domain, and not be hidden away in a private collection. The car is actually available for hire for a variety of events. So, if any reader feels inclined, and has the wherewithal, to hire the car, s/he can get information here:

And here endeth today's lesson.


Erika Chase said...

Great looking cars, Tom -- both yours & Stride's. I had a boyfriend during my dating years who owned a yellow Mustang, think it was mid-60's model. Very nice...and so was he. Just saying. Enjoy your new toy!

Leisa said...

If your Mustang looks something like that stylish black car, you would definitely change the way people look at writers! And that’s a compliment, by the way! He-he. If I’m not mistaken, this has got the improved smoked appearance, right? And I know there’s something cool with those two ears. I mean the side mirrors. :D They have the Pony package you were saying. Cool!

Leisa Dreps