Whisky & Culture

Scotch and the gumshoe

When a blonde walks into a sleuth's office the first thing he does is reach for the whisky bottle. Jeff Siegel dons trenchcoat and fedora and heads for the mean streets of detective fiction
By Jeff Siegel
Dalziel examined the tray with distaste and beckoned the waiter close. For an incredulous moment Pascoe thought he was going to refuse the drinks on the grounds that police officers must be seen to be above all favour.''From Mr. Fletcher, eh?'' said Dalziel. ''Well, listen, lad, he wouldn't be pleased if he knew you'd forgotten the single malt whisky, would he? Run along and fetch it. I'll look after pouring this lot.''’Superintendent Andrew Hill may be gross, rude and crude, but as his partner Peter Pascoe, will be the first to admit, the Yorkshireman knows his whisky. And Dalziel never, ever passes up a chance at a fine single malt – especially when someone else is paying for it.That trait is more than just a private quirk of Dalziel's. It is part of every hard-boiled detective's personality, public or private, American or English, for as long as there have been hard-boiled detectives. It has approached cliché: the trench coat, fedora and the slinky blonde who wanders into the office with an offer he (or she, these days) knows should be refused, but isn't; the first-person narrator with a voice as deep and distant as a mountain echo; the cop who is ordered to forget about the case, but doesn't; the flashing neon light outside the cheap hotel room, and the office bottle –- especially the office bottle.A hard-boiled detective without a drink is like someone wearing clothes at a nudist colony. It's possible, but it's going to attract a lot of attention. Even today, when a new generation of detectives approaches the office bottle in an entirely different manner, the bottle's presence still makes itself felt. Chief Inspector Morse, whose fondness for a taste wouldn't have raised an eyebrow in the old days, attracts attention if he spends too much time in the pub. And Kinsey Millhone may not take a bottle out of the drawer when she needs to mull over a difficult case, but it's always there if she wants it. Carroll John Daly's 1922 story, ‘The False Burton Combs,’ is usually considered to be the first hard-boiled adventure. All of the key ingredients are there: an unnamed first-person narrator who is as tough as he is cynical, and a plot punctuated by gunfire and the sounds of doors being kicked in. Oddly, though, the detective doesn't drink (he's actually too busy shooting people to have time). But Daly remedied that in his first story featuring Race Williams, ‘The Knights of the Open Palm’ of 1923.Williams, a private eye whose aim is a lot better than his grammar, has few redeeming literary qualities, and his stories haven't aged well. That's why most people today have never heard of him. But he was immensely popular from the mid-1920s through World War II, and is regarded as the model for everything else that followed – including the way he wrote about liquor.The plot of Knights isn't much – Race shoots up a a bunch of Ku Klux Klansmen who are terrorizing a town – but there is plenty to drink. He does his research on the Klan by plying a local wise guy with bootleg gin (which immediately establishes that the bad guys aren't that bright), and the Klan is portrayed as little more than a place for gangsters to drink when they're not robbing jewellery stores. That story uncorked the bottle, and it would not return for decades. Every time a detective turned around, there was a bottle. Shell Scott, the white-haired hero of 1950s paperback originals like The Case of the Vanishing Beauty, is a devotee of Hudson's Bay Scotch. The always elegant Charles Paris never passes up an an opportunity for a large Bell's. Spenser, the one-named private eye who appreciates fine food, fine wine and fine liquor, has been known to wax eloquent on the qualities of Murphy's Irish whiskey. Mike Hammer, who never met a a hoodlum he didn't want to kick senseless, spends almost as much time downing highballs as he does bedding beautiful women. And don't forget the bar scene in which John Shaft mixes a Mafioso punk a Scotch and glass cocktail.Then there is Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's classic private eye, whose office bottle is always busy and who never underestimates the value of a drink:‘She poured a fat slug of mellow looking Scotch into my glass’, Marlowe says in Farewell, My Lovely, while trying to question a suspect, ‘and squirted in some fizz-water. It was the kind of liquor you think you can drink forever, and all you do is get reckless.’No-one knew how to use a shot glass to advance a plot better than Dashiell Hammett. Hammett is the first and still the best hard-boiled writer, and his three detectives – Sam Spade, the Continental Op, and Nick and Nora Charles – never passed up an opportunity for a drink.In The Thin Man (1934), the Charleses spend the Christmas holidays at a swanky New York hotel within walking distance of the city's finest restaurants, but their Christmas feast consists of cocktails – their meal of choice throughout most of the book, whether it's for breakfast or for a snack before going to bed. The Continental Op, hero of pulp stories and several novels, mixes a mean laudanum cocktail just before the heroine is done in with an ice pick in Red Harvest in 1929. ‘I would rather have been cold sober, but I wasn't,’ he says. ‘If the night held more work for me, I didn't want to go to it with alcohol dying in me. The snifter revived me a lot. I poured more of the King George into a flask, pocketed it and went down to a taxi.’Everyone knows detectives drink, but fewer people are able to explain why. Obviously, a lot of it comes with the territory. It's much easier to advance the plot, points out Simon Brett (who created the aforementioned Charles Paris), if the detective has a drink, is thinking about having a drink, or has just finished drinking. Without liquor, he asks, can't you feel the foundation of the genre tremble?But there is more to it than that. Liquor was more than a plot device to the early hard-boiled writers; it was a way of life. When they wrote their stories, the cultural assumption was that real men drank hard liquor, and the more they drank, the manlier they were. If there is less drinking in hard-boiled stories today, it's because the cultural assumption has changed, and that there are other ways for the detective to prove his manhood. No-one, for instance, doubts that female sleuth V.I. Warshawski is as tough as they come, and she rarely drinks anything stronger than a glass of red wine.Equally crucial was Prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, by prohibiting the sale of alcohol, may have actually made drinking a more important part of people's lives. And since so much of the best hard-boiled work came out of the US, to influence writers elsewhere, Prohibition had an affect even in places – like Britain – where it didn't count.Before Prohibition, if someone wanted a drink, they went to a bar or liquor store. During Prohibition, since getting a drink wasn't that simple, anyone who wanted one had to think about it, focus on it, and plan for it. All of this extra attention made drinking more important – both culturally and psychologically – than it had been before the amendment.It's no coincidence that the rise of the hard-boiled detective corresponded almost exactly with the life of the amendment, from 1920 to 1933. And by the time of repeal, the image of the hard-drinking loner had been so well established that there was little reason not to continue to take advantage of the stereotype. After all, it worked so well.Today, with women detectives like Millhone and Warshawski, and a host of police officers who can't be seen drinking on duty, like Morse and Charlie Resnick, it may seem as if hard liquor has gone the way of the record album and turntable. But that's not necessarily so.James Sallis, who has written a series of hard-boiled novels about New Orleans private eye Lew Griffin, understands the concept exactly in Eye of the Cricket:‘She stepped behind the bar again and announced: “Last call, ladies and gentleman. Might want to order doubles. Cops be here soon enough.”I knew just what she meant.All kinds of undesirables dropping by this afternoon.’The cops, after all, would interfere with their drinking. n