Can you use a car brand convincingly in a novel without merely leaching off its existing image? Iain Banks shows the answer is yes and no.
Placing cars in books is a specialised version of the use of brands generally. Iain Banks often referred to or even used specific cars as elements of his plots (Bristol is name-checked in his novel The Bridge). In this Banks shares something with Ian Fleming, another story-teller in the traditional mould. There are two specific instances where Banks did this which I would like to discuss. One case succeeded very well, since the reference resonated with the character and story involved. The other instance seemed to me to definitively indicate the entire novel in question had not itself worked.
I’ll start with the failure. Why? As I quite liked Iain Banks as a person, I’d rather finish on a positive note. The Business (1999) deals with the activities of an ancient organisation (“The Business”) stemming from an ancient order of merchants suggestive of the Templars. The Business has reached such a state of wealth and power that its leadership decides it needs a seat at the United Nations and so they sets about buying a small state to use as a proxy.
In order to carry this plot, Banks tracks the protagonist, Kate Telman, as she globetrots in search of a corrupt insider. The key moment, when I was unable to suspend my disbelief, is when Telman forces a character to confess by over-revving a Ferrari F355 and threatening to wreck it. One can only assume that a person of questionable morals and considerable wealth would not really care if their property was destroyed in this manner.
Here the car is a well recognised symbol of luxury, expense and prestige but Banks seemed to forget that people in this class are rather indifferent to material things. The cars as a signifier failed. The psychology failed. And perhaps some of us might not be all that upset at one less red car in the world.
In 1993 Banks produced his thriller Complicity, set in Scotland and centred on a set of grisly murders. These are being investigated by his central character, Cameron Colley, a journalist at a fictitious newspaper. The novel is littered with technical and brand references, reflecting not only the character but, I contend, Banks’ own interests.
The detail that works best is the decision to add a Peugeot 205 GTi to the arsenal of names deployed (among others are VHS cassettes, Atari computer, Lambert & Butler cigarettes). Even if the 205 didn’t already have the image as a car for the impatient and the impetuous, after Complicity it would have. Everything about Cameron Colley is of a piece with this choice of car.
It could not have been an Astra SRi or a Ford Escort XR3i. One wonders if a VW Golf GTi was too obvious a choice? Did Banks elect to choose the Pug to confound that expectation? No, the Peugeot, brittle and nervous, is exactly right. It is easy to imagine the car haring across the Highlands as Colley pursues his story (it helps perhaps if one has recklessly driven a 205 in the Dublin mountains).
For this novel, Banks managed to slip in a brand to the narrative without it feeling contrived and, rather than lazily relying on the car’s own image to express something of the character’s personality, I think Banks gives something back to the 205 too. That’s perhaps where Complicity succeeds best in comparison with the Ferrari in The Business, where that car is doing all the work, lending its brand image to support a scene which was in desperate need of help.
I can only recommend Complicity, not only for its interesting narrative devices, but also as a pleasing snapshot of the time and for putting the Peugeot 205 GTi convincingly at the service of fiction.