Sweet Virginia Cigarette Burning in My Hand*

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the fascinating things about crime fiction is the way that it shows us our changing values. As time goes on and social attitudes change, we sometimes see them in crime fiction, too. For instance, I got an excellent suggestion from author and blogger Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen to think about how smoking is portrayed in crime fiction and how that’s changed. That’s a really interesting topic, actually, and gave me some welcome “food for thought.”

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlcok Holmes mysteries, both Holmes and Watson are smokers. Holmes usually smokes a pipe, but he and Watson smoke cigarettes, too. In fact, cigarette stubs and ends provide important clues in more than one of the Holmes adventures. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Holmes uses his knowledge of Watson’s brand of cigarettes to trace his friend. Watson has made a trip to Baskerville Hall to do the “legwork” of investigating a mysterious curse that seems to lie on the family. The most recent death, that of Sir Charles Baskerville, seems to be from a heart attack but a family friend Mr. Mortimer believes in the curse. He is afraid that the next heir Sir Henry Baskerville will fall prey to the curse. Holmes sends Watson to report back to him and Watson gets in deeper than he thought, as the saying goes. He’s afraid that Holmes won’t know what’s happened, but he’s reckoned without Holmes’ deductive abilities. What’s interesting in the Conan Doyle stories is that although several of the male characters smoke, we don’t see women smoking at all.

That all changes in Agatha Christie’s writing. In many, many of her works, both men and women smoke regularly. In fact, it’s unusual for an adult not to smoke. And although Poirot (a smoker himself) is frequently known to say that one can solve a crime just by thinking, he does make use of cigarettes and their residue sometimes. That’s what happens in the short story Murder in the Mews, in which he finds out the truth behind the shooting death of Barbara Allen. She seems to have committed suicide, but a few clues suggest otherwise. Poirot and Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp look into the case and it’s actually the evidence from a tray full of cigarette butts that gives Poirot one of his famous “little ideas.”

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, copywriter Victor Dean has taken a fatal fall down a staircase at his place of employment, Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. His death would be put down as an accident but for the fact that he left behind him a half-finished letter in which he intimated that someone in the company was participating in illegal activities. The company managers hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at Pym’s to find out the truth about Dean’s death. Wimsey does so in the guise of Dean’s replacement. As a part of his “cover,” Wimsey designs a new ad campaign for Whifflet cigarettes. It turns out to be a stunning success, and it also provides an interesting look at the way smoking was viewed at that time. It was considered socially acceptable for men and women to smoke, and lots of people did. In fact, it was simply assumed that people would smoke.

In the last fifty years, we’ve found out a lot about the health effects of smoking, and that’s brought about some interesting changes in the way it’s depicted in crime fiction. Oh, crime fictional characters still smoke. For instance, more of the characters in Denise Mina’s Garnethill smoke than don’t smoke. But it’s clear that times have changed. It’s not taken for granted any more.

For instance, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s sleuth is Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. Thóra  doesn’t smoke and wants the office she shares with her law partner to be smoke-free. Much to her chagrin, their secretary Bella doesn’t share their views about smoking. It makes for more than one conflict between them when Thóra catches Bella smoking at work, or when the evidence is clear that she has been smoking. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone isn’t a smoker either, although she’s not sanctimonious about it. There are many, many other sleuths, too, who aren’t smokers.

What’s also an interesting development in recent decades is some sleuths’ decision to stop smoking. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus and Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran all stop smoking in the course of the series that feature them. In Surrender, Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe is quitting smoking, too. She’s picked a bad time to do so, and she slips more than once in the novel. But quitting is her goal. And there are other sleuths in the same situation.

One question we could ask is: with all that we now know about smoking, why do so many characters in crime fiction still smoke? Because a lot of them do, depending on which sub-genre you read. One possible explanation is that a lot of the interactions among characters take place in circumstances where smokers are likely to light up: in bars, after meals and so on. There’s also the fact that police investigations are stressful. Smokers tend to light up more often under stress than when the stress level is lower. So during a murder investigation it makes sense that one would see more smoking.

That said though, there has been a change in attitudes towards smoking in crime fiction. Many sleuths are non-smokers, and there are plenty of novels in which none of the characters, even the minor characters, lights up. But I’m interested in your views on this. Do you see a different attitude towards smoking in today’s crime fiction than in, say Golden Age crime fiction? Does it matter to you whether a protagonist smokes? If you’re a writer, does your sleuth smoke? Do his or her family and friends?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Denise Mina, Donna Malane, Dorothy Sayers, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Ian Rankin, Lilian Jackson Braun, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

28 responses to “Sweet Virginia Cigarette Burning in My Hand*

  1. I think there is still a hangover from very successful past advertising campaigns (going back a long way) when smoking was associated with health, sporting activity, by implication sexual success, etc. I remember when my parents smoked when i was a child, those Players and Senior Service with the navy officer on the packets – almost like an endorsement. When I was a student, it was considered cool to smoke, and the very coolest smoked unfiltered Gauloises or Gitanes.
    I’ve been reading quite a bit of recently published crime fiction recently, and I’ve noticed that hardly anyone, if anyone, seems to smoke. I suppose Scotland (Mina) could still be an exception, though 😉

    • Maxine – I know exactly what you mean about that “hangover from the past,” and I think you have a point. My parents didn’t smoke, but a lot of adults I respected did. In fact I can recall lots of teachers at school lighting up at break time. And certainly the cooler kids smoked. Different brands, but I think the same messages: smoking is sexy; smoking is adult; smoking is what strong, cool and suave people do.
      I’ve noticed an awful lot less smoking in the crime fiction I read now, too, although there are some novels where people smoke. It’s not a common thing, though, as it used to be. And that makes sense if crime fiction is to reflect what happens in society. Fewer people smoke now than used to smoke. Your mention of Scotland makes me wonder, too, whether smoking’s more common in noir novels or, in a larger sense, whether sub-genre affects whether and to what extent people smoke. Thanks for the “food for thought.”

  2. I’ve certainly had to deal with this issue, since in the ’30s and ’40s everyone smoked. I do have a character who smokes a pipe, and I make the occasional mention of cigarette holders and ashtrays. It’s a tricky balance. Society now sees smoking as the doorway to hell and I don’t want readers brought out of the story by thinking “Geez, they smoke a lot!”

    • Elspeth – I was so hoping you’d respond to this post because of the time period in which you’re setting your work. You’re certainly right about that tricky balance. On one hand, as you say, everyone smoked in the ’30’s and ’40’s. Not to have your characters smoke wouldn’t be authentic. On the other hand, as you say, today, smoking is seen as a real negative by a lot of people. Might they be put off by characters who smoke a lot? I think you’re being really wise to mention cigarette holders and ashtrays without making much of them.

  3. Another interesting post to ponder. I’ve thought about this change in movies, but hadn’t given it any thought as far as books are concerned. I think it’s been a slow tend and maybe that’s why I hadn’t noticed it in books. It is another one of those elements that lends itself to the period. One couldn’t write about the say the ’50s and ’60s and not include smoking, yet a book set in 2010 wouldn’t seem odd with no one smoking. Margot, you’ve given us something else to think about. 🙂

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Thank you – I think ;-). And you’re so right that there’s been a change in movies with respect to smoking. Yes there are still some characters in movies who smoke, but not nearly the way people smoked sixty or more years ago. And perhaps it’s just as you say, that the change has come slowly enough that we haven’t really paid close attention to it. Yet, I really do think it’s real. As you say, you expect characters from the ’50’s and ’60’s to smoke. That’s not necessarily the case with characters in a book set in the modern day.

  4. I remember one thing vividly about John Dickson Carr’s PANIC IN BOX C– it’s an average work due to the extreme stupidity of one of the characters, but I vividly recall one of the characters teasing someone who didn’t want to smoke by asking with horror if someone has been distributing pamphlets to her about cancer, etc.

    I’m an unconditional admirer of Carr’s, but still, that *does* date the book quite a bit. To put it mildly…

    • Patrick – Yes, that does indeed date the book. Thanks for bringing up that example; it shows brilliantly exactly the point I’m making. And it may not be the best of Carr’s work (My vote? The Hollow Man), but it’s a really solid example of that era’s attitudes towards smoking.

  5. Margot: I agree with the proposition that less characters smoke in current crime fiction though Stieg Larsson’s characters, led by Lisbeth, smoke large quantities of legal and illegal substances.

    Your post set me thinking about how even less likely to appear in modern crime fiction, unlike older mysteries, is the cigar.

    Carr’s Sir Henry Merrivale would enjoy a robust cigar after a generous meal. Mortimer’s Rumpole delighted in a small cigar, especially at Pommeroy’s Wine Bar. In the Nero Wolfe mysteries Inspector Cramer was famous for chewing on a cigar.

    • Bill – Right you are about Lisbeth Salander. She and several other characters in that trilogy smoke all sorts of things. And yet I do think you’re right that fewer characters smoke in today’s crime fiction than in crime fiction from years past.
      You’re raised such an interesting questions about cigars, too! The characters you mention certainly are cigar smokers. So are several of Agatha Christie’s characters. There are other examples, too. It may be that as cigarette smoking has wanted in popularity, so have cigars. An interesting proposition and I’ll bet you’re right.

  6. kathy d.

    This is a good question. I don’t see much smoking in mysteries that are contemporary. Older crime fiction, yes, including Dashiell Hammett’s books.
    I do see it more in global mysteries than in U.S.-set books.
    My parents smoked, my father especially who consumed one-three packs a day of Camels. However, he stopped after seeing a hypnotist; it worked.
    I smoked in high school and college, then tapered off to very few, then stopped. I remember the “cool” kids smoked Gaulois.
    Thankfully, most friends have stopped smoking, some with enormous effort.

    • Kathy – Most of my friends don’t smoke either. I think the time may have passed where “everyone” smoked. It’s interesting that you would mention non-U.S. books as having more smokers than U.S.-set books. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly could be. Smoking is certainly more popular in some places than in others. But in general I think people are smoking less, and that’s part of the reason for which we don’t see as much of it in novels.
      And thanks for mentioning Hammett’s work – plenty of smokers in those novels!

  7. kathy d.

    I think that many authors reflect the culture and customs of their countries, and there is a lot more smoking in many areas of the world, including many countries in Southern Europe, like Greece, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and so on, than in the U.S.
    Knowledge and education about smoking’s dangers have certainly “filtered” out to many here, and anti-smoking programs run by lots of groups, including the American Heart Assn., have helped many to quit smoking. Even AA (Alcoholics Anon.) has run a smokers’ group for years which has been incredibly helpful. I don’t know if these exist in many countries.
    The U.S. ranks 39th in the list of cigarette users in the world. So it would seem reasonable the writers would reflect the realities of the countries in which they set their books.
    I would also imagine that the current economic crisis is upping smoking as well as other behaviors that are linked to increased stress.
    I’ve lost friends and neighbors to lung cancer, so I hope smoking decreases even more. And I’m glad to see little smoking going on in fiction, at least here.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right that there is a lot of anti-smoking education available, so people today do know what the dangers of smoking are. I think that’s probably one of the main reasons for which people quit smoking, or don’t smoke in the first place. And as you say, with fewer people smoking in real life, it makes sense that there’s less smoking in crime fiction. You’re right, too, that smoking is more popular in some places than in others, so it also makes sense that there would be more smoking in those places than in the U.S. in fiction as well as in real life.
      I’m sorry that you’ve lost friends and people you knew to smoking-related disease. It gives you, I’m sure, quite a different perspective on the way smoking is depicted.

  8. The latest episodes of ‘Sherlock’ had him trying to give up smoking which I guess the writers thought was the modern day equivilent of indulging happily in cocaine. The emphasis having changed from satisfaction to self-denial of your urges in these straightened times. If I remember rightly ‘Lewis’ has his sidekick Hathaway trying to give up smoking too.

    • Sarah – Interesting point about the modern Sherlock character. I hadn’t thought of that before. It’s certainly a far cry from the Holmes that Conan Doyle created isn’t it? And it certainly reflects modern attitudes towards smoking.

  9. I have lost about a dozen ‘smoking’ friends and relatives to lung cancer, and heart disease associated with smoking. Years ago I had to give up going to a regular reunion dinner because of the smokey atmosphere. I can perhaps think of the day when TV and films will be prevented from showing smoking even when the setting is in the period of the 1920s to 1960s.

    • Norman – I’m sorry that you’ve lost friends and relations to smoking-related disease. It’s hard to believe, too, just how many people used to smoke, considering what we now know about its dangers. No wonder you ended up having to stop going to that dinner with all of that smoke; I’ve been to events like that, too. Today things are different and you may be right that eventually, smoking won’t be permitted in scenes even from the days when just about everyone smoked.

  10. I have avoided writing characters who smoke because I don’t smoke. However, in real life, many police officers smoke because of the stress. They can’t smoke indoors, however, which adds a twist, I think.

    • Clarissa – Interesting point; I hadn’t thought about it but you’re right. In real life a lot of police officers (and they’re not the only ones) smoke, but they have to do it outdoors. That does add a twist, doesn’t it? And I know what you mean about avoiding characters who smoke. In the novel I completed a couple of months ago, just one character smokes and she’s just a “cameo.”

  11. Patti Abbott

    When I took a job with AT& T in the late sixties, in a office of around one-hundred people, only one or two did not smoke, I don’t know how they stood it. I also noticing the drinking that goes on.

    • Patti – Oh, that is a major change isn’t it?! Today, most offices are smoke-free, so that those who are smokers have to go outside for their “nicotine fixes.”

  12. kathy d.

    I agree with Norman. I think there should be zero tolerance for smoking, even in films of yesteryear.
    When I see actors smoking in films, I feel badly because that is not good for their health, in addition to possibly influencing audiences here and globally.
    I became very sensitive to smoke years ago and I have to avoid it in streets and at events. Our city is very smoking intolerant so it’s not allowed in many places, but smokers congregate outside bars and restaurants on large avenues near where I live. I feel like I’m in combat operations having to circumvent the smokers outside, scurrying around them, crossing streets, etc.

    • Kathy – You raise, I think, a real dilemma. On one hand, it is uncomfortable and unhealthy to walk past a large group of people who are smoking. On the other hand, smokers will tell you that they don’t have anywhere else to go. It’s not an easy problem to solve, and I don’t blame you for not wanting to be around cigarette smoke.

  13. I am so glad you took up this interesting subject, but sorry I didn´t notice your post earlier.
    As you know, Peter Wimsey´s campaing strikes me as immensely ironic, considering how much people do today to stop smoking.
    And I know smoking is terrible for one´s health, still I don´t like this modern assumption that bad habits equal bad people. So I do my best to remember to include a smoker or two in my novels in some kind of protest against the latter-day health religion 🙂

    • Dorte – Thanks very much for the inspiration for this post :-). You make a really interesting point that the pendulum has moved, as you might say, in the other direction about smoking. Now many people regard smokers as “less” because of the tobacco, and it’s as popular to be a part of an anti-smoking campaign as it once was to smoke. The reality is, as you say, that a person’s character has nothing to do with whether s/he smokes. I think it’s realistic, too, to include a smoker or two in your work. After all, lots of people do smoke…
      And ironic is exactly the word for Wimsey’s ad campaign in Murder Must Advertise, especially if you consider it by today’s standards.

  14. No smokers allowed chez moi. I quit smoking 30 years ago, and then saw three cases of lung cancer in my family. I won’t even let my bad guy characters smoke. 🙂

    • Pat – I can’t say I blame you one bit. With your personal experience, you know what the consequences of smoking are… And y’know it’s funny: my “bad guys” haven’t smoked either…

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