Where the Gin is Cold, But the Piano’s Hot*

SpeakeasiesFrom 1919 until 1933, the transportation, sale, import and export of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States. But Prohibition certainly didn’t stop people drinking. And it certainly didn’t stop people selling alcohol to those who wanted to drink it.

One sort of place where people went to drink was the speakeasy. Speakeasies were illegal (although in some places, police looked the other way for a ‘consideration’). For a lot of people, that added to their appeal. So did the music and dancing that were often a part of the speakeasy experience. People who wanted to go to speakeasies often needed to have memberships, know a password, or in some other way be ‘vetted.’ It was a way of making sure that the police didn’t raid. So in that sense, speakeasies could be selective places.

If you think about it, the speakeasy atmosphere is tailor-made for a crime novel. All sorts of people frequented speakeasies, many of them not exactly upstanding or law-abiding. Add to that the sometimes-racy entertainment, the alcohol, and the conflicts that could arise in such places, and you’ve got a very effective context for a murder mystery. So it’s little wonder there are lots of speakeasies in crime fiction.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, for instance, begins in a New York City speakeasy. PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora, who live in San Francisco, are visiting New York City just before Christmas. Nick’s having a drink at a speakeasy when a woman approaches him. She is Dorothy Wynant, daughter of successful executive Clyde Wynant. She’s concerned because he seems to have gone missing, and she wants Nick to find him. Nick knows Wynant, but he’s reluctant to get involved. Then, Wynant’s attorney persuades Nick that this is a serious matter. And the next day, Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolfe, is found dead. So Nick and Nora start asking questions. To say that they’re not teetotalers is an understatement, so there are several scenes in the novel that take place in speakeasies.

Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, which takes place in 1926, tells the story of Joe Coughlin. He’s had a very proper Boston upbringing, but he’s gotten involved in organized crime, and now intends to climb his way to the top. Because it’s during the time of Prohibition, organized crime leaders often get involved in smuggling and delivering alcohol to speakeasies, and Coughlin does his share of that. In fact, the novel begins when Coughlin and a partner hit a gambling room behind a speakeasy that belongs to a rival gang leader. That plays a major role in what happens later in the novel, as Coughlin moves to Florida and gets involved in rum-running and other operations. Among other things, this novel shows the often-close connections between speakeasies and organized crime.

So does Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, which takes place mostly in early-1930s Oklahoma. That novel introduces readers to Jack Belmont, who’s always been a kind of ‘wrong ‘un,’ and now has dreams of being an outlaw like Pretty Boy Floyd, only bigger and more powerful. The novel also introduces Deputy U.S. Marshal Carlos ‘Carl’ Webster, a lawman who is determined to put gangsters like Belmont behind bars. For Belmont, the speakeasy isn’t just a place where you go for a drink, or a source of income. It’s a place where a criminal can lie low for a while if necessary. Webster knows that speakeasies are places to get information about what’s happening in the underworld, so he finds them useful too, in a different way. It’s an interesting look at the way the speakeasy fit into social life at the time.

Of course, not all speakeasies were seedy and ‘low rent.’ There were plenty of speakeasies that catered to wealthier people. We see that, for instance, in Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. In that novel, we meet Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson, a rum-runner who makes his living selling smuggled alcohol to Hollywood luminaries for their parties, and to the speakeasies that those people frequent. When Hud’s friend and business partner Danny is murdered, Hud decides to find out who’s responsible and have his revenge. And there are several possibilities, too. For one thing, a rival gang has moved in and tried to take over some of the local speakeasies and other criminal operations. They’d be only too happy to have Danny and Hud out of the way. For another, there are the people with whom Danny and Hud do business. Some of those people wouldn’t hesitate to kill if they saw the need. The trail leads through speakeasies, film studios, smugglers’ boats and high-class parties.  

And then there’s Ellen Mansoor Collier’s Jazz Age series. Beginning with Flappers, Flasks, and Foul Play, the series features Galveston society reporter Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Cross. She wants to make her mark as a ‘real’ reporter, but that’s difficult for a woman at that time and in that place. Jazz’ brother Sammy owns a speakeasy called the Oasis, and that’s where Jazz gets her chance at a real story. One night, successful banker Horace Andres suddenly collapses at the club, and later dies. Jazz has the opportunity for a real story, but she’ll have to find out who the killer is without alerting the police to the fact that her brother owns an illegal business.

And that’s the thing about speakeasies. They were illegal. And that meant that all sorts of things might happen there, and the police frequently couldn’t get involved. That’s part of the reason they make such interesting contexts for crime novels. Well, that and the great music of the age.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s All That Jazz.


Filed under Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Ellen Mansoor Collier, Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Stone

26 responses to “Where the Gin is Cold, But the Piano’s Hot*

  1. Fab post! I loved The Thin Man, both the book and the film. The witticisms were awesome. Lots of drinking going on there, too!

    • Thank you, Kathy! I thought The Thin Man was terrific, too. And yes, lots and lots of drinking. And it’s interesting how the push for temperance during the last years of the 19th Century and the first few of the 20th Century ended up leading to…just the opposite in the speakeasies.

  2. Col

    I enjoyed John Florio’s Blind Moon Alley set in prohibition with his intriguing mixed-race Albino Jersey Leo – Snowball’s a bartender at a speakeasy.

  3. Interesting, too, that in Scandinavian countries, where drinking is banned without food and all sorts of other restrictions, it leads to an obsession with drink. Must be the rebellious teenager in all of us, doing the opposite of what we are told! But it’s not quite the atmospheric, smoke-filled, brooding speakeasy culture that we love to see in film noir and in books.

    • Oh, that is interesting, Marina Sofia! Perhaps it is a reflection of that urge to rebel. As you say, though, there is something about the speakeasy atmosphere that lends itself to a good crime novel. That atmosphere, plus that inclination to go against what we’re told, can make for a very effective context for a novel.

  4. Margot: The Flo in Tom & Lucky and George & Cokey Flo by C. Joseph Greaves runs away with a friend’s older brother at 14 and a year later at 15 is co-owner of a speakeasy in Cleveland. Unfortunately, her early business success did not carry over into the rest of her life.

  5. kathyd

    I don’t think I’ve encountered speakeasies in my reading, but they do appear in old movies.
    I’ve been in a historic former speakeasy, Chumley’s, on Bedford Street in NYC. There is still only a hole in the door and no sign or name on or above the door so one has to know where to go.
    However, I’ve spoken before about my great-uncle George, the real character of the family. He was a bootlegger during Prohibition. He would drive in a hearse with his long-suffering spouse, Fanny, and my father, posing as his son, and would drive to Canada for a “funeral.” Then he’d load up the hearse and drive back across the border. Never did get caught.

    • I remember you mentioning your great-uncle, Kathy. He does sound like a character and I’m glad you’ve reminded me of him. It sounds as though he had a good system for getting to and from Canada without attracting attention. I didn’t know that any speakeasies had been preserved. That must have been interesting to visit!

  6. Speakeasies do make for intriguing backdrops and the route for all sorts of trouble in crime fiction. If you compared the speakeasy of yesteryear with now, what would be our speakeasies? Great post, Margot.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • Thanks, Mason. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And you know, you have an interesting question here. What gathering places count as our modern-day speakeasies? There are states in the US where gaming isn’t legal, so I suppose you might consider ‘underground casinos’ to be modern-day speakeasies. They have some things in common, I think.

  7. I haven’t read many books set around speakeasies but loved the old gangster films that made so much use of the sleazier side of Prohibition – and the more dangerous! I loved Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist though, where prim Rose gets sucked into the seemingly glamorous world of the speakeasy when she make friends with exciting and beautiful Odalie. Just before things begin to go horribly wrong… 😉

  8. Tim

    I recall students’ reactions to _The Sun Also Rises_ (certainly not crime fiction, unless you count Brett Ashley’s promiscuity as a crime), and their thoughts about the nearly constant and excessive consumption of alcohol in the novel; students were shocked and amused. Only after they learned a bit about U.S. prohibition and unrestricted drinking in Europe did they begin to understand drinking within the novel as part of the post-WW1 “great escape” expatriate issues. Sorry, this has nothing to do with crime fiction, but it certainly has a lot to do with booze, one of my past enemies.

    • Doesn’t matter if it’s not crime-related, Tim. Thanks for your insights. And you’re right; you have to see that sort of alcohol consumption in the context of the times. That’s, I think, the best way to consider Prohibition, too.

  9. Love this post! Which reminds me, I have “The Thin Man” movie recorded, and the book waiting to be re-re-read. I’ll chalk both up as research and education as a writer. 🙂

  10. kathyd

    Here is the Wikipedia entry for Chumley’s which has a photo of the front of the building. It was close for nine years and now has been completely renovated as an upscale bar and restaurant. So, it seems as if the historic atmosphere will no longer exist.

    • Thanks, Kathy, for sharing that link. It sad to hear that the original atmosphere of Chumley’s is gone, but it’s good to know one can still visit the place. It’s an interesting piece of history.

  11. I’m surprised to realize I don’t recall many books reflecting that aspect of the era, or set in speakeasies – but now I’ve got a reading list, so thank you!

  12. I have been wanting to read Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid but I did not know it was set in that time period. That is a bonus.

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