What is it about crime writers and cars?

Some years back, BMW commissioned a handful of leading mystery writers each to pen a brand new short story in which one of their models would feature. The stories would only be accessed for a brief period on the car manufacturer’s website. The authors were allegedly paid a handsome sum to do so, at any rate more than the customary markets for short stories would ever do. Karin Slaughter and Simon Kernick were amongst the writers who took up the challenge (and Simon kindly allowed me a year later to reprint his, excellent, story in my annual volume of ‘The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime’).

In a similar vein, intrepid daredevil Peter James who is known to see Steve McQueen’s face when he looks at himself in the bathroom mirror, regularly competes in car races, with several worrisome crashes to his credit and, in addition, has donated vehicles to his cash-strapped local Brighton police force, in recognition of the assistance they provide him in researching his Roy Grace novels. Surely, the ultimate in brand recognition: imagine being arrested for any of the seductive sins that Brighton can inspire and being bundled by the cops into the back of the Peter James car!

The latest manifestation of the collision between brand marketing and crime writing now involves Swiss author Joel Dicker, whose ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair’ was a surprise international bestseller, and something of a road movie of a book.

He was this year approached out of the blue by the advertising agency representing DS automobiles (which we common mortals remember as Citroen before their recent rebranding spin-off) to pen an original novella on a theme and subject of his choosing. Having done so, he would agree to be filmed driving the new DS4 model in a short movie, to be divided into web episodes, blending both the actual writing/making of and a dramatisation of the actual story.

Which writer could turn down such a challenge (and the hard cash…), even more so Dicker who once trained as an actor before switching to the law and writing?

A bunch of UK non auto-trade journalists for prominent websites were recently flown over in first class all expenses paid to Paris for the launch of the event at the local DS World, a showroom cum museum devoted to not just the cars but also the story of DS and its Citroen antecedents, with fascinating documents, historical artifacts and car related memorabilia to die for. Similarly, journalists from all over Europe joined them there for the launch.

Dicker explained the story behind the new book, and previewed the actual film, as all the brief episodes were premiered. They have since become available on the DS website. In them, a sometimes stiff and self-conscious Dicker, with heavily-accented English voice-over narrative, plays himself, a writer on a deadline, hounded by his literary agent (played by an actress as Dicker doesn’t use an agent…), travelling behind the wheel of the sleek DS4 through urban landscapes and then the verdant expanses of the Black Forest in search of a plot, which begins to coalesce before his eyes in a sometimes confusing manner unless you’ve read the actual story. It’s like a bizarre, if fascinating and lengthy, television ad rendered as an art movie.

To top the whole exercise, DS have actually published a small, slim booklet of the story ‘For Insiders Only’, which is printed in at least a French (Pour les Inities Uniquement) and an English version edition. It’s a great story, with a particularly original twist as one would expect if you’ve read “Harry Quebert’ with its revolving door of red herrings and plot reversals. Knowing the collectible market, I would safely predict this will become something of a choice item in years to come as it is only available for a short period to potential customers visiting DS showrooms and interested in a test drive of the shiny new model. I, and my fellow travellers, for one, picked up a copy of each edition, had them signed by the affable Joel, and then as an afterthought grabbed an extra copy which is now sitting in my safe as a future investment or might become available through Crime Time if our esteemed editor wanted to organise a relevant competition (what sort of crime would you commit to get your hands on a new DS4? Why the DS4 might prove the ideal car for a bank robbery getaway?).

In truth, the protagonists of Joel Dicker’s books DO spend much time in their cars, not only in ‘Harry Quebert’ but also in his recent follow up ‘Le Livre des Baltimore’ (The Book of Baltimore) which has only just been published in France, although Quercus his British publishers haven’t it scheduled until early 2017, which introduces further characters related to his main Quebert protagonist Marcus Goldman. And Joel is pretty relaxed and entertaining about the whole concept bringing commerce and writing together in this manner.

Brand marketing and literature might make for uncomfortable bedmates but there are undeniably precedents. Many leading authors have been known to auction names for their characters for charity-raising purposes; Fay Weldon once notoriously wrote a novel actually sponsored by a famous jewellers; turncoat mystery author Lauren Henderson now writing glittery bonkbusters a la Jackie Collins as Rebecca Chance recently managed to get herself offered a luxury holiday in a swanky tropical resort with silk sheets, daily spa treatments and possibly endless colourful cocktails served by hunky tanned waiters in skimpy speedos for the purpose of research in order to set her next sex and holiday novel in a similar locale; Mexican crime author Paco Ignacio Taibo III has even become a global ambassador for Pepsi Cola, which affords him a lifetime supply of the divine brew on tap; our own Susan Moody wrote a novel inspired (and financed) by a series of TV coffee adverts; and I even won a holiday for two in a nudist (and more: it was called ‘Hedonism’…) Caribbean beach resort for writing a story for a competition involving exotica and sand. Ah, the things we do for art!

By the way, my next novel involves a murder on a cruise vessel. I await eagerly for Cruise & Maritime, P&O, Fred Olsen, the Queen Mary or, for that matter, any travel company to offer me that 120 days round the world cruise for free; I’d even throw in a couple of gratis onboard lectures (Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, sex in books, sex in film, sex anywhere, brought to you by the King of the erotic thriller…)

And were I not a fetishistic sort of guy who’s been driving a succession of BMW cars for over 30 years (and to compound matters am also a slave to Apple products), I would certainly give the new DS4 a serious thought next time I have to change cars. It actually does look elegant, modern without being ostentatious, and is surprisingly affordable. Which probably answers the question of whether the Dicker affair will help sell cars. The advertising break stops here!

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