Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Altered States

Recently I came across an interesting book entitled Booze and the Private Eye: Alcohol in the Hard-Boiled Novel by Rita Elizabeth Rippetoe. It did bring to mind some long-ago images that were almost constant: strong-jawed silent PIs who were pretty stoic, kept their emotions to themselves and sought their solace in a bottle. These were men like Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer and Mike Shayne. Similarly tough policemen might spend their evenings in bars, since for most of these men family life had gone by the wayside. I don't recall the term "alcoholic" ever being used. Not even "drunk" very often, but I read those books so very long ago.

An essay by Stephen Budiansky in The Atlantic Monthly humorously compares the tough guys of the past with the modern detective who seemingly frets more about sissy stuff like high blood pressure. He points out that for Phillip Marlowe deep relaxation meant being knocked over the head with a tire iron and going to la-la land for a while and having a health problem might have meant being sapped with a blackjack, beaten with a gun, shackled to a bed post and shot up with heroin. In Strip Jack, John Rebus took a hot bath for deep relaxation for self-help. But here I must stand up for Ian Rankin's Rebus. What he went through in his SAS training was as bad as anything anyone went through–just read Knots and Crosses.

There is no doubt that the life of a crime fighter is tough and the pages of crime fiction are populated with protagonists who are described by the Teddy Thompson song "Altered State":

I like to live in an altered state
It makes me love all the things I hate
And I'm happy to be alive
I like to put on a happy face while I cry on the inside

The only question is, are there more detectives on the bottle these days or on the wagon? Some of my favorite sleuths who have alcohol problems are Harry Hole from the Jo Nesbø series, Ian Rankin's John Rebus, Simon Brett's Charles Paris and John Straley's Cecil Younger. In the female line, I like to follow the adventures of Faith Zanetti in stories with titles like Vodka Neat, Double Shot and My Favorite Poison written by Anna Blundy. These titles give a hint about her tippling and I highly recommend the books.

But at the top of my list, because he loves reading as much as he loves drinking is Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor, a PI who starts his day in his pub, which he calls his office, drinking coffee laced with whiskey to help him open his eyes. He makes no apologies for his love of the eau de vie or any other drug he can get his hands on, but he tries every so often to get straight. All of these detectives seem to solve their cases one way or another, no matter how impaired, and live to serve another day.

Very different from these, but likeable all the same, at the bottom of my list is none other than Leslie Thomas's Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective. Davies was given this moniker because he was said to be harmless and he was known by the London police as the "last detective" because he was never sent unless it was a very risky job or there was no one else. He was a drunk, frequently laughed at, often foolish but he never lost hope and always felt that one day he would redeem himself. Among his many shortcomings was that he was never suspicious or cautious and got beaten up on a regular basis. When interviewing a suspect most often he was the one answering all the questions. When he solved a case it was because he drank not despite it.

Much more common in crime fiction these days is the recovering alcoholic and drug addict. Joining these ranks are Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder, James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux, Lilian Jackson Braun's Jim Qwilleran, Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon, J. A. Jance's J. P. "Beau" Beaumont and Rinus de Gier, a creation of Janwillem van de Wetering. This type of character is sometimes more interesting, because he or she is more open about his emotions and is more likely to have a life outside of the job.

Some of the help for the now-sober has come from AA, some from friends and, for some, a change in lifestyle of a different sort. Van de Wetering described de Gier in ways that resembled himself at times: fashionable, debonair and mustachioed. They both moved to Maine and both cleaned up their life and drinking with the aid of Zen Buddhism. At one point, van de Wetering had stopped writing due to his alcoholism.

Another very famous and successful mystery writer was Raymond Chandler, who was known to have abused alcohol for the duration of his writing career. It has also been theorized that it was alcohol that killed Edgar Allen Poe, although modern theories include many other ideas such as drugs and rabies. Stephen King is quite open about his past in rehab, which was not of the celebrity type.

Rippetoe makes the point that fiction mirrors what society thinks about drink. Well, there is college-aged society, young society, middle-aged society and aged society and fiction aimed at all those groups these days. That leaves quite a bit of leeway. I would be very interested in input from readers with opinions on the subject of the changing role of alcohol or drugs in the lives of detectives and how it impacts their work.


  1. I'm pretty burned out on alcoholic detectives at this point. In the most recent Harry Hole book, The Leopard, Harry is completely wrecked on drink (and other substances). Yet somehow, he is still attractive to women, superhumanly strong, etc. Yeah, right.

    I haven't read the Dangerous Davies books yet, but just last week I watched the pilot of the British series The Last Detective and liked it a lot. I guess I'll now have to add the books to my list as well.

  2. Painful to watch Dexter's Inspector Morse take bad care of himself, the boozing and then neglecting his diabetes. I miss the books and the tv series. Pity John Thaw died young.

    Sometimes it's refreshing to read a book where the detective has okay self-esteem, decent relationships, no huge bad habits. I've been reading Ed McBain and the Travis McGee books again of late.

    Steve H.

  3. Some scientific studies show that a person's critical thinking is affected by the second drink. So when Jack Taylor down's his third double whiskey in a short time his only saving grace is that he is not driving. The authors often write as though the detectives are really drinking soda pop as they saunter out of the bar without stumbling into the door jamb.

    I once had a discussion about an early Peter Robinson mystery in which Inspector Banks in the course of one day had a few pints in a pub at lunch, several pints after work, more than one bottle of wine at dinner and where I felt this was more than a bit of alcohol, another felt it was an acceptable cultural habit. All in the eye of the beholder, but if he had to breathe into a bag he might have passed because he was eating and heavy. Banks in his later books really cut back in my view.

    I, too like to reread about the cops of character, Walt Longmire and Salvo Montalbano in my case.

  4. Twenty-ive years ago you'd see a PI downing shots in a bar and stumble out to his car for the ride home. You don't usually see that any more. There's much more awareness about driving drunk in both life and in books, that good guys don't.

    I don't like it when the detective's alcoholism seems like the writer worked a formula when he was created. "Outsider, dislikes The System, doesn't always listen to The Boss, better make him an alcoholic".

    "Acceptable cultural habit". Excessive drinking is excessive no matter what the culture.

  5. Interesting perspective... And very true. The relationship developed in books is further portrayed in media. In reality, the men who are supposed to be models of society (do I need to mention?) would not be able to function as highly as they portray.

  6. Nice post. You said it, Nurse M. The way some guys drink in movies and books has me on the floor just watching them.

    Outside of noir's heavy drinkers, recntly there seem to be fewer American PIs who aren't in recovery . Fictional cops in Scandinavian and Baltic nations & Russia seem to pull out the bottle to keep warm. I don't know if recent years have seen a decline in their drinking. ANybody able to tell me?

    Oh. Meant to ask. Favorite book, movie with an alcoholic? Mine, Chandler's The Long Goodbye and movie Leaving Las Vegas. Kev

  7. Movies: Barfly, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    Movie/play: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

    Book: Malcolm Lowry's UNDER THE VOLCANO

  8. Entirely different in tone are the movie The Thin Man (with all those martinis and the charming Nick and Nora Charles) and the screwball mysteries by Craig Rice featuring the little lawyer, John J. Malone.

  9. Ooh, The Thin Man! Love it.

    Favorite drunk scene in a movie is when Jimmy Stewart's character goes to see Cary Grant's in The Philadelphia Story. "C. K. Dexter-Haven, you have unsuspected depth!"

  10. I give The Thin Man another vote. How about Arthur with Dudley Moore? The drinking in Sideways. Days of Wine and Roses.

    And talk about altered states, The Big Lebowski. Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Hunter S. Thompson. Nikki