The weekend is upon us, and a lot of people like to take some time during the weekend to sit back and relax with a beer. Some beers are meant to warm you up while you’re sitting by the fire during the winter, and others are meant to cool you down on a blistering hot summer afternoon. Either way, beer has been a part of human culture for thousands of years. Beer is an integral part of ‘pub life,’ sport, and just spending time relaxing, whether in front of the TV or with family or friends. With beer being that much woven into so many people’s lives, it’s only natural that it’d be a part of crime fiction too.
In fact, beer plays a critical role in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). Poirot is hired by Carla Lemarchant to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder of her father Amyas Crale, who was a famous painter. His wife Caroline was convicted of the crime and died in prison, but Carla is convinced her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to take the case and begins to put together what actually happened on the day Crale was murdered. Police reports show that he was poisoned by coniine which was put into his beer, so one of the questions Poirot has to answer is: who would have had access to the poison and the beer, and who (besides his wife) had the motive for murder. To find those answers, Poirot interviews all five of the people who were there on the day of the murder. He also has each of them write out a personal account of what happened that day and in the days leading up to the murder. From that information he’s able to deduce who the killer is and what the motive really was.
Having a beer (or a few) together often sets up the atmosphere for the sharing of information and that’s important for a sleuth too. There’s an example of it in Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man. Archaeologist Harry Steadman has come into an inheritance, so he’s left his position at Leeds University and moved with his wife Emma to Helmthorpe to excavate the Roman ruins in the area. He’s almost finished getting the necessary permissions when he’s found bludgeoned to death. DI Alan Banks and his team begin the investigation, starting of course with Steadman’s family and friends. Steadman was in the area longer than Banks has been, so he’s going to need some background on the family, their interactions and so on. For that he turns to a local, Sergeant Weaver, who knows everyone. There’s an interesting scene in this novel that takes place in The Bridge, which was Steadman’s local. In that scene, over a couple of beers, Weaver tells Banks what was locally known about the Steadmans, who Steadman’s usual drinking partners were, and other useful pieces of ‘off the record’ information that turn out to be very helpful in solving the case.
Fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse will know that he is quite fond of his pint. For him, beer often serves as a ‘liquid lunch,’ and he does his best thinking (or so he believes) when he’s got a beer in front of him. There are a lot of examples in the Morse novels; I’ll just mention one. In The Way Through the Woods, Morse and Lewis have taken over the investigation of a ‘cold case,’ the disappearance of Swedish tourist Karin Eriksson, who was on her way to Wales when she went missing in Wytham Woods. Her rucksack has been found but she hasn’t. One person who may know more than he has said is David Michaels, head forester at Wytham. So Morse and Lewis take a special interest in him and at one point they find him having a beer at the White Hart:
‘’Am I a suspect?’ asked Michaels with a wan smile…
‘Yes,’ said Morse simply, draining his beer. ‘Another?’
‘Why not? I’d better make the most of things.’’
Of course, as Morse fans also know, the case isn’t quite that simple…
Peter Temple’s Jack Irish enjoys his beer, too. At the beginning of Black Tide for instance, he’s just returned to Melbourne after being gone for two weeks on a difficult case. He’s eager for a beer and some relaxation:
‘No phone call to my sister, Rosa, lasts less then half an hour, and from the canyons of Fitzroy, the beer was calling.’
On the way to The Prince, he stops by Charlie Taub’s woodworking shop where he occasionally works. Here’s a little of their conversation:
‘‘I gather you missed me a lot then.’ [Irish]
Another snort. ‘ What I miss, I miss someone finishes little jobs I give him. Like little tables. Day’s work for a man who actually works.’
‘Finished tomorrow,’ I said. ‘Good as done. Now, time for a beer.’’
The two make their way to the Prince, where Irish’s father’s football friends spend their time and in that pub, the beer is as much a part of the atmosphere and the setting as the football talk is. And it’s a good thing Irish takes this time to relax because he’s soon caught up in the case of the disappearance of Gary Connors, who might have made off with sixty thousand dollars of Irish’s father’s money…
Very often having a few beers is a way to ‘let off steam’ after a bad day. So there are plenty of scenes in crime novels where detectives do just that. In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, for instance, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is stabbed one morning as he and probationer Lucy Howard are investigating a housebreaking. White was popular, and seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, the main suspect, has a long police record and a bad reputation. So the cops are only too happy when Rowley’s arrested at the end of the day. The murder and the investigation have taken a heavy toll on all of the team members, so they decide to go out after shift to the Ocean Queen. As they share a few rounds, they’re able to start letting everything sink in. There’s a sense of shared pain and camaraderie and the feeling of letting go, just a bit, of what happened. That’s when another patron, who’s watching television coverage of the murder and arrest, begins making disparaging comments about the police. Constable Cameron ‘Cam’ Walsh, who looked up to White as a mentor, can take no more and a beer-fueled fight follows. The juxtaposition of those two scenes really shows that having a beer (or two, or more) can be a proverbial double-edged sword.
That said though, sitting back with a beer is a really natural reaction to a bad day, or a good day, or time with friends, or time alone. It’s been a popular drink for thousands of years, and I’ll bet it’ll continue to be for a long time to come.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a nice stout just waiting for me. Happy Weekend!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Keeping the Faith.