I Don’t Drink It No More*

TeetotalingWith 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Ian Rankin, Lawrence Block, Lilian Jackson Braun, Miriam Grace Monfredo, Stan Jones

34 responses to “I Don’t Drink It No More*

  1. I debated quite a while before having my P.I. drink. I only drink a glass of wine at dinner and my husband doesn’t drink at all. In the end, I submitted so they he’d “fit in” and be able to blend easily in scenes where he had to sleuth. That may be one reason crime novels have protagonists who drink. It goes with the territory…unless it’s a police procedural…and they’re not drinking on duty…still, many have problems.

    • Thanks for your insights, S.K. I think it is a decision that crime writers need to make; and, even though you wouldn’t think it’s a big deal whether a character drinks or not, it can, as you say, help her or him to ‘fit in’ or ‘stand out,’ depending on what the author wants. I sort of went the way you did with my own sleuth. He does drink alcohol, but he’s not ‘a drinker,’ if that makes sense. It’s a tricky balance I think.

  2. Ooh what a great topic, drinking and detecting do seem to go hand in hand in crime fiction and although more detectives seem to be emerging minus the permanent alcoholic drink I can’t think of one that is teetotal – I must admit I’m happier with moderation or at least not making a big deal of not drinking. I hadn’t realised until relatively recently that the temperance movement was linked to the suffragette movement although of course once you know it makes perfect sense.

    • Thank you, Cleo. I know exactly what you mean about not making a big deal about drinking or not. If the author makes too much of a character’s teetotaling, the character comes off as priggish. Unless that’s what the author has in mind, it can be annoying. And I agree: it does make sense that the suffrage movement and the temperance movement would have been related.

  3. Matt Scudder is the one that has stayed with me. Block is so clever in the way he winds Matt’s involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous into the plot of several of the novels. Incidentally, Hercule Poirot may not be an abstainer exactly – he does indulge in a creme de menthe now and again – but he much prefers a tisane to a brandy or a beer!

    • He does, indeed, Christine! And I like the way Block weaves the AA story arc through the Scudder novels. It’s realistic without taking over, if that makes any sense. And it gives Scudder an extra character layer.

  4. Honestly, most of the books I read lately don’t involve the tired-old cliche of the detective with the drinking problem. It seems, at least in the books I read, that authors are veering away from this. Are you noticing a change too? Many agents and publishers won’t accept stories where the cop drinks.

    • I think that’s an interesting – and welcome! – trend, Sue. It’s nice to see characters who can enjoy a glass of wine or a beer without having a drinking problem. And it’s nice to see characters who simply don’t drink (for whatever reason) and are perfectly normal human begins. It’s just an example of the diversity in crime fiction, which I like. And it may mean that a publisher or agent might actually find my Joel Williams character interesting (he’s not a self-involved, dysfunctional alcoholic…) 😉

  5. I agree with Sue – it seems to be happening less often with ‘new’ detectives and even a few old heavy drinkers seem to be trying to moderate their intake a bit – a trend I’m very thankful for! Unfortunately most of the protagonists in domestic noir seem to be imbibing all the leftover alcohol, though. 😉 But I’m also thankful for Prohibition – without it, we wouldn’t have half of the great gangster movies, which I loved as a child and still love today. It’s amazing that such a law ever got passed though – can’t imagine it ever happening over here. Whatever would Rebus do?

    • 😆 What, indeed, FictionFan? Prohibition really was an odd and interesting failed experiment, both politically and socially. But as you say, it gave us gangster films and legends and the culture of ‘rum running.’ One wonders what would have happened to people like Al Capone if there hadn’t been Prohibition…

      I do think you have a point about fewer sleuths doing a lot of heavy drinking. Many of them enjoy their pint, or a glass or two of wine or whisky. But a lot of them don’t wallow in it these days. I suppose they’ve left that for the domestic noir characters… In all seriousness, I do wonder whether people are just getting tired of that plot point. I, for one, am pleased to see the change.

  6. Col

    I did read a prohibition-speakeasy set novel a couple of years ago – Sugar Pop Moon from John Florio which was excellent. Hard not to think of Matt Scudder when reading this post, its time I got back into that series.

    • Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series is a good one, Col. Definitely one worth making the time to read. And thanks for mentioning Sugar Pop Moon. That’s one I’ve not read, but just the title sounds interesting!

  7. Margot: Reflecting a real life problem for Canadian lawyers a pair of fictional Canadian lawyers crashed from their abuse of alcohol but work their way back after giving up drinking. Ellis Portal was a judge in the mysteries of Rosemary Aubert who ended up a homeless street person for a period of time before resurrecting himself. Arthur Beauchamp in the mysteries of William Deverell was pushed from his prominent Vancouver firm for a street front office in downtown until he dealt with his drinking problem.

    • Those are good examples, Bill, of lawyers who have to stop drinking in order to resurrect themselves. And I would guess alcohol could present a real risk for attorneys, but didn’t know it was a particular problem among Canadian attorneys. When you think about all of the stress and some of the really heartbreaking cases an attorney can come across, though, I can see why.

  8. I too have noticed that detectives lately seem to drink less (with the exception of Rebus) while domestic noir ‘civilians’ drink more. There also seems to be a rise in cops who go jogging – healthy lifestyle is clearly in fashion now.

    • Yes it is, Marina Sofia. And I actually like that trend. Not that I’m one to go jogging every morning, but I do like it that police characters are getting more diverse. Some drink, some drink moderately, and some don’t drink at all. I think that reflects real life.

  9. Kathy D.

    I’m glad to see there is a trend away from alcoholic detectives. Been there, read that too many times. It does get tired, and also, don’t we want to see some mental health in those who are investigating murders?
    I didn’t know about Blackwater Spirits, must read it as I’m interested in the early suffrage movement. It isn’t surprising at all that the women’s rights and the Prohibition movements coalesced. Many men got drunk and beat their wives, and that was a major reason why suffrage leaders combined the issues.
    I think I’ve said here before that my father’s Uncle George, the Irishman with the twinkly blue eyes, was a bootlegger. He drove to Canada in a hearse, with his spouse and my father acting as his child, and pretended to be going to a funeral, then they would return with the vehicle full of liquor.
    I am a teetotaler as I developed alcohol intolerance like others in my family. But I sure do miss glasses of wine now and then, and an occasional cocktail when dining out..
    Lest we not forget Guido Brunetti and Salvo Montalbano who do imbibe on wine with meals, a cultural thing in Italy, but neither are alcoholics.

    • I do remember your mentioning your father’s uncle, Kathy. What an interesting family you have! I’m sure he had lots of stories about bootlegging during Prohibition. I think you have a point about the overlap of the suffrage movement and the temperance movement; it makes sense that there would be some commonality. And of course, as you say, there are plenty of fictional detectives (Brunetti and Montalbano are two of them) who have a glass of wine or two, but they aren’t alcoholic. Such a character can work well, and I, for one, am happy to see the move away from the almost pre-requisite alcoholism in stereotypical fictional sleuths.

  10. Margot, it was interesting to read about “temperance movements” and what it stands for. I agree, alcohol consumption does lead to “terrible consequences” and destroys families. One of my biggest achievements, so far. has been total abstention from all kinds of alcoholic beverages including beer and wine. Never tried it, never tasted it. I hope to keep it that way!

    • You’re not alone, Prashant, in your choice not to drink. As you say, alcohol can wreak havoc on families, and plenty of people choose not to take that risk. Others don’t drink for other reasons. It’s nice that in crime fiction, we’re seeing more characters who reflect real life people – and that includes people who choose not to drink.

  11. Margot, great post. It reminded me of how smoking has changed so much over the years in books and especially in movies and TV. You mentioned one of my favorite teetotalers, James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran.

    • Thanks, Mason. And you’re absolutely right about the pattern in smoking, too. Fewer and fewer fictional characters smoke these days, there’s no doubt about that. That’s an interesting parallel you’ve drawn.

  12. The drunken, problematic PI or policeman is a die-hard cliche – but it’s also quite interesting to read police procedurals set in the UK 20-30 years ago. Policemen who are not at all meant to be dysfunctional drink *such* a lot, casually and socially and in their lunchtimes, and no-one finds it commentworthy. And then they jump into their cars and merrily drive around. I think that has changed – both in books and in real life I hope. I wonder if that turns up in American books too? – I don’t think I notice it so much. But Brit cops were always going to the local pub.

    • This reminds me that Maigret drinks vast amounts during the course of nearly every novel. It isn’t surprising that in Maigret Takes the Waters his doctor packs him off to a spa (where of course he solves a murder).
      There’s Morse, too: he ends up with diabetes.

      • That’s a well-taken point, Christine. In both cases, we see some of the consequences of that heavy, regular drinking. Both detectives are loath to give up their booze, and it’s only realistic that something would happen to them, sad as it is.

    • Oh, that is an interesting point, Moira. I don’t think the vision of the copper who has a lot to drink and still drives, does his/her job, etc., is as prevalent in the US. But you’re right about Brit police. Interesting cultural difference. I think, too, that we are seeing less of that than we used to all round.

  13. This famous quote from The Long Goodbye always makes me smile: “I like the neat bottles lined up on the bar back and the lovely shiny glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar – that’s wonderful.” Marlowe was never going to be a teetotaler that’s for sure!

    • Well, that’s quite true, Vicky! And thanks for sharing that quote. It’s a lovely example of what I had in mind with this post. It also shows Chandler’s almost poetic style.

  14. i am pretty amazed at how much people drink on TV now. The GOOD WIFE has gone from red wine to hard liquor, I guess reflecting her state of mind as well as trends. It’s an easy way in writing a story to have inner thought or a conversation take place.

    • You’ve got a point, Patti. Having a character drink gives the author the chance either to add in an important conversation, or to show some inner character development. Interesting point about drinking on TV, too. I wonder if that trend will continue.

  15. Kathy D.

    Then there is Harry Hole, who somehow detects despite horrid alcoholic binges and blackouts. Wonder if he’s kicking the bottle.
    Ah, English and Irish pubs: How I’d love to have one near my house. Even though I don’t drink alcoholic beverages, I think I could manage: seltzer and chips. Pubs are social hubs, so one should be able to hang out and find alternate drinks.

    • Pubs are great places, aren’t they, Kathy? Good food, conversation, the whole thing. And yes, Harry Hole is definitely an example of a sleuth who struggles with a drink issue…

  16. A very interesting topic, Margot. I remember how Nick and Nora Charles drank incessantly in The Thin Man, both the book and the movie. I won’t say it did not affect them at all, but the crime got solved. Amazing.

    • You know, Tracy, you’re absolutely right. There’s a bewildering amount of alcohol in that novel. As you say, they managed to solve the crime despite it, which is a whole lot more than I could say! Thanks for the kind words.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s