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.