Drinkers, Stinkers and Occasional Tipplers
“Alcohol is like love: the first kiss is magic, the second is intimate,the third is routine. After that, you just take the girl’s clothes off.”
— Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
It started out on the printed page, but it’s mostly through all those damn movies from the thirties and forties that booze and the hard-boiled private eye are now forever linked. And not just any old tipple, savoured in moderation, will do — Sam Spade never asked for an appletini in his life, and Mike Hammer would probably shoot the bartender if he was offered a frozen strawberry daiquiri. Hell, even Spenser never had a beer when he could have two, but I can’t picture him drinking anything that comes with a tiny umbrella in it.
Nope, real dicks drink for real. No fancy schmancy cocktails that have twenty-three ingredients–nope, your average honest eye wants an honest drink, served up strong and simple. Preferably served in a relatively clean glass, in a dingy dive, a dimly lit hotel bar, a brassy nightclub, a tawdry cocktail lounge or in their inner sanctorum, scoring a hit off the office bottle.
Of course, the fact that more than a few of the writers of these eyes were heavy drinkers and even shit-faced alcoholics may have had something to do with it. That, and the still-pervasive myth that consuming copious amounts of alcohol is somehow a sign of toughness. You think drinking is tough? Try quitting…
- Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler
You can’t list “Drinking Eyes” and leave out Chandler, who was no stranger to booze himself. At home, Phil Marlowe favoured rye and Four Roses scotch, although he claims “I was never fussy about drinks.”
Sure enough, Marlowe’s office bottle was one of Chandler’s more enduring contributions to the P.I. archetype. Or stereotype. Marlowe’s bottle usually contained Old Forester bourbon, although later later it was Old Taylor.
But booze always seemed to figure in Chandler’s work, be it Barcardi in “Finger Man” or double Gibsons in “Wrong Pigeon.”
Still, the drink most often associated with Chandler is the gimlet. In The Long Goodbye (1953), Marlowe’s pal Terry Lennox, an English ex-pat and drunk, tells him that “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.”
Supposedly, after the publication of the novel, the drink gained popularity in America.
- Nick and Nora Charles by Dashiell Hammett
Martinis, anyone? As Eddie Muller once called it “the most booze-fueled book of all time… you can get a contact high just reading the damn thing,” and then added “Nobody ever made getting loaded look more glamorous.” The films continued the grand old tradition, although Nora’s consumption tapered off after she became a mother. But Nick was more than willing to pick up the slack.
In fact, we first meet him in the films dispensing advice to a gaggle of bartenders and waiters on the finer points of shaking a martini: “The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to foxtrot time, a Bronx to two-step time, but a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”
- Curt Cannon by Curt Cannon
One of Ed McBain’s earliest eyes, Cannon was aBowery bum who preferred whiskey, but wasn’t exactly discerning when it came to the brand.
- Bill Crane by Jonathan Latimer
Bill Crane didn’t have a drinking problem. He drank, he fell down. No problem… but hide the formaldehyde.
- Phryne Fisher by Kerry Greenwood
Greenwood’s glamorous, gutsy Miss Fisher solves crimes in 1920s Melbourne, Australia, and — given a choice — favours Scotch or, occasionally, champagne.
- Matt Scudder by Lawrence Block
Irish Whiskey and coffee was Manhattan gumshoe Scudder’s tipple of choice in his drinking days–what he called maintenance drinking. He drank and drank through the first books in the series until, memorably, he didn’t. Except for occasional relapses and convenient flashbacks, of course.
- Shell Scott by Richard S. Prather
Bourbon and water is his regular tipple, but he’s been known to imbibe martinis (very dry) and Hudson’s Bay Scotch on occasion.
- Nick Stefanos by George Pelecanos
“What is it? Oooh, I’ll take it.” Alcohol is the least of Nick’s problems, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem… most memorable, perhaps, is Down By the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995), which kicks off with an extremely hungover Nick waking up one morning after on the banks of the Anacostia River, just in time to witness a murder.
- Mike Shayne by Brett Halliday
Martell’s Five-Star Cognac is the drink of choice for Miami’s seemingly indestructible red-headed dick. He goes through it the way Popeye goes through spinach–and with pretty much the same results.
- Roxane Weary by Kristen Lepionka
This eye has her problems, and her weakness for Crown Royal may not even be the biggest of them.
“WHERE’S THE BEER?”
- Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout
“Where’s the beer?” are the very first words the Great Man speaks, in his very first appearance in Fer-de-Lance(1934) His favorite beer is Remmers, or his own homebrew.
- Spenser by Robert B. Parker
Beer, almost any brand; for most of the series. “Spenser’s a beer man,” explains Ace Atkins, who took over the series after Parker passed away. In fact, one of the pleasures of Atkins’ continuation of the series for long-time fans was to see Spenser drinking beer again — an intentional shout-out to the early (and many would argue) best books of the series. See also The Beers of Spenser.
- Zen Moses by E.M. Cosin
A beer snob, prefers microbrews; hangs out at Father’s Place.
- Dan Roman by Edward Mathis
Drinks a lot of beer, particularly Miller, although he claims he doesn’t really like it all that much since “it all tastes like bear piss anyway.” Hmmm… maybe he should just switch brands.
- Mike Hammer by Mickey Spillane
A no-nonsense drinker, “Hammer drinks beer instead of cognac,” the author famously explained, “because I can’t spell cognac.” In Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film version of Kiss Me Deadly, though, he opts for something a little stronger. Walking into a bar, he orders “a double bourbon. And leave the bottle.”
Later on, of course, Spillane, not a heavy drinker in real life, began a long and lucrative career shilling for Miller Lite, often wearing a fedora and trenchcoat in a series of TV spots.
RYE WHISKY, RYE WHISKY I CRIED
- Jessica Jones
In her darker moments, at least on television, Marvel’s former superhero turned private dick drinks “Winston” Canadian Whisky. No, I’ve never heard of it either, but according to TV Tropes, it’s based on a real-life Windsor, Ontario brand, often exported to the American market, that Marvel has used before (Iron Man #128). Jessica also drinks Wild Fowl Whiskey, obviously based on Wild Turkey.
Varg Veum by Gunnar Staalesen
- The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett
In one memorable instance, in Red Harvest (1929), he swigs down gin and laudanum.
- Milo Milodragovitch by James Crumley
In an effort to cut down on his drinking, which is getting out of hand, Milo drinks only peppermint schnapps in Dancing Bear. It doesn’t work.
- Dick Shamus by Jon Hammer
In the graphic novel, The Drowned Girl (1990), Dick drinks chocolate Hoo-Hah and formaldehyde. Bottom’s up!
ONE DAY AT A TIME: 12 STEP DICKS
- Matt Scudder by Lawrence Block
The standard by which all other alcoholic eyes should be judged. The series follows Scudder as he deteriorates, book by book, until he finally realizes that if he doesn’t sober up, he’ll die. And then Block decided to continue the series, exploring the long-term ramifications of Scudder’s decision.
- Max Thursday by Wade Miller
Guilty Bystander (1947), the first novel in the acclaimed series, finds the San Diego private eye only a step or two above skid row, working as a flop house dick. He sobers up when he finds out his son is in danger.
- Mike Hammer by Mickey Spillane
He may have been mostly a beer guy, but in The Girl Hunters, Hammer’s 1962 comeback novel, Hammer’s supposedly’ spent the last seven years drinking and mourning the loss of his beloved Velda. He cleans himself up, rather miraculously, when he learns that Velda is alive and in trouble. Oddly, in later books, he drinks as much as ever, with no mention of his alcoholism. So much for continuity.
- Humphrey Campbell by Geoffrey Homes
- Barnaby Jones by Edward Hume
- Guthrie Lamb by Hunt Collins
- Sam Hill by Harry Lucey (1913-80) and ???
- Deitche, Scott,
Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters & Gin Joints to Gumshoes & Gimlets | Buy this book | Kindle it!
Reservoir Square Books, 2015.
An enthuiastic look at the connections between booze, the mob, film, and writers, covering everything from how Prohibition (the first war on drugs) gave us criminal empires and the scoop on Al Capone’s tastes in rye to some of the favorite watering holes (and tipples) of hard-boiled and noir authors (Chandler, Cain, Hammett, etc.) and how to make a gimlet–you know, just in case Marlowe’s ghost drops by. Generous shots of research, garnished with enough asides, wisecracks and quotes to quench any thirst, although it could have done with a little more editing.
- Drink Like a Hard-Boiled, Noir Shamus
Our pal Steve Gomez suggests “11 Cocktails to Serve Your Inner Detective”
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Ron DeSourdis for his help with this one. Next round’s on me…