From 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.