With all of the crime-fictional characters who drink (and sometimes, who drink quite a lot), you might think that drinking is almost a prerequisite for being a sleuth or other major character in a crime novel. But that’s really not so at all.
In real life and in crime fiction, there are plenty of people who don’t drink alcohol. Some people abstain for religious or spiritual/moral reasons; others abstain for health or medical reasons. Still others don’t drink because they know first-hand the damage that alcohol can do. And then there are those (I have a few friends like this) who simply don’t care for the taste of alcohol, at least not very much. For them, not drinking is simply a matter of taste preference, and nothing else.
As I’m sure you know, there’ve been temperance movements in many countries. The idea behind these movements has been that alcohol consumption leads to terrible consequences, and that the best course of action is simply not to drink at all. The goal of these movements has been for as many people as possible to ‘take the pledge;’ some movements have even worked to outlaw alcohol entirely.
In the US at least, the temperance movement gained strong support in the mid-to-late 19th Century from the growing movement for women’s suffrage. While there wasn’t a complete overlap, plenty of suffrage activists also supported temperance efforts. We see the interaction of those movements in Miriam Grace Monfredo’s Blackwater Spirits, the third in her Glynis Tryon series. Tryon is the librarian for Seneca Falls, New York in the mid-1800’s, at a time when suffrage activism is taking root in the US. In this novel, the main plot concerns the arrest of Seneca Falls’ deputy Jacques Sundown for murder – a murder he says he didn’t commit. So there’s a great deal about the relations (or lack thereof) between the white citizens of the town, and the local Iroquois people. But also woven into the story is new temperance legislation, and the efforts to outlaw alcohol. Monfredo presents both sides of the case, and shows how the temperance movement fit in with other issues of that time.
As you’ll know, the temperance movement succeeded in the US, at least for about 14 years. During the Prohibition years (1919-1933), it was illegal in the US to manufacture, transport, export, sell or possess alcohol. That didn’t, of course, stop people who wanted to drink from doing so. But it does show that the teetotalers had their share of political power. Prohibition’s mentioned in several crime novels, including Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, wealthy American businessman Samuel Rachett is murdered on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the Orient Express train. The only possible suspects in his murder are the other passengers on the same coach. Hercule Poirot, who’s on the train, is persuaded to find out which of them is the killer. One of those suspects is an American named Cyrus Hardman. At one point in the novel, a decision is made to search the passengers’ luggage. When Hardman’s is opened, Poirot and his friend M. Bouc notice that he’s got several bottles of liquor in his suitcases.
‘‘You are not a believer in Prohibition. Monsieur Hardman,’ said M. Bouc with a smile.
‘Well,’ said Hardman. ‘I can’t say Prohibition has ever worried me any.’
‘Ah!’ said M. Bouc. ‘The speakeasy.’’
It’s an interesting glimpse of the extent of the temperance movement. Oh, and it is said that Christie herself was a lifelong teetotaler.
Stan Jones’ White Sky, Black Ice highlights another perspective on the question of alcohol use. In that novel, we are introduced to Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. He is a member of the Inupiaq people, and serves in the small town of Chukchi. One of the plot threads of this novel concerns a debate over whether or not Chukchi should ‘go dry.’ Most of the people there are Inupiaq, and there is a great deal of sad experience with the impact of alcohol on their families. Many believe it would be better if Chukchi had no alcohol, so that people would be less likely to fall prey to it. At the same time, there are plenty who believe that it is the individual’s decision to drink or not. Many hold, therefore, that people, not the government, should decide whether alcohol should be allowed in the town. It’s not an easy question, and Jones discusses both sides of the debate.
In Camilla Läckberg’s The Stranger, Fjällbacka police detective Patrik Hedström and his team investigate the death of Marit Kaspersen. On the surface of it, she seems to have died in an alcohol-related single-car crash. Certainly her blood alcohol level is very high. What’s strange, though, is that she didn’t drink. So why would a teetotaler be involved in a drink driving incident? Then, Hedström hears of another death a few years earlier. Rasmus Olsson apparently jumped off a bridge after drinking a bottle of vodka. Again it’s a case of a teetotaler dying with a large quantity of alcohol in the blood. As Hedström puts it,
‘‘…they don’t seem to have the slightest thing in common except that they both were teetotalers.’’
It turns out that these deaths are connected, and both are related to a past tragedy.
Fans of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series will know that one of Rankin’s other main characters, Malcolm Fox, is a teetotaler. Fox, whom we first meet in The Complaints, has his own personal monsters to grapple with, so he doesn’t drink. We also see that in some other crime-fictional sleuths, too, such as Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran and Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder.
There are certainly enough characters in crime fiction who do drink that it’s sometimes nice to remember that not all of them do. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ringo Starr’s The No No Song.