So there I sat, at the stick in my latest hangout, The End of Times, having another Scotch on the rocks. The guy on the stool next to mine reminded me of Orson Wells during his “We will sell no wine before its time” Paul Masson phase. For some reason, this guy kept looking over at my drink and snickering. After he did it about five times, I turned to him and said, “Something funny, Orson?”
He didn’t get the reference, only smirked at my drink again. It was then that I noticed he was drinking something clear, with no rocks. “What’s that,” I inquired, nodding at his glass. “Everclear?”
“As a matter of fact,” he slurred at me, “it’s vodka, straight.” His slurring made it sound like he’d just said, “Ass a madder of fat, ish voda stray.” Orson took another belt, like he was adding an exclamation point to his statement.
“Low class, that’s what you are,” he then told me. “Not a gentleman at all.” And with that he tossed off the rest of his drink, slipped off the stool, and whirlygigged it out the door.
I sat there for a moment, staring at his now empty glass, then back at mine. Low Class? What’s low class about drinking Scotch as opposed to Vodka? Vodka, by the way, is also known as the last booze an alcoholic can drink, as it’s the easiest on the liver. Or so they say. Thankfully, I’m
days years away from finding out if that’s true or not.
Then my train of thought became a runaway, rolling back to the private detective novels and movies I love so much. Maybe Orson was onto something? Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne drank Martell, a quality cognac. That’s brown. Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddell drank Scotch. Brown liquid. Philip Marlowe, in the movie version of The Big Sleep walked around with a bottle of Rye in his pocket. Again, a brown liquid.
However, in the movie version of The Thin Man, Nick Charles drinks martinis, usually. He’s a high-class guy, too. Marlowe and Liddell are certainly NOT high-class guys.
I took a sip of my drink, pondering if I were on the brink of some deep-meaning social theory. Does what a detective drinks really mirror who he’s supposed to be? Was Mike Shayne trying to “put on airs” by making his brown liquor cognac? It was worth considering, and certainly worth another round, so I ordered one. As I took a sip of my new, soon-to-be-dead and lamented friend, I pondered a few questions:
1. Do authors use what a character drinks as a “character window”?
2. And don’t some authors use it as a “character crutch”?
3. Bad guys, like detectives, always seem to drink from the whiskey family (barley, corn, rye, etc,) while their bosses usually drink something considered “higher class”, like champagne. Are the bosses “putting on airs” by doing so? Is it a way for them to show they have money, when in reality they only end up appearing nouveau riche and gauche?
4. Champagne would be considered a “clear” drink, wouldn’t it? Would it?
I took another sip from my glass, letting my thoughts get washed in the alcohol. Made those thoughts happy, that was for sure.
Then it occurred to me: what about straight drinks versus mixed drinks? Tough guys drink it straight, no chaser. In the pulp, noirish books of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s I’ve read, women usually drink mixed drinks. I mean, can you see Mike Shayne bellying up to the stick and ordering a Fuzzy Navel? A Sex on the Beach? If Philip Marlowe ever walked into a bar and ordered a Cosmopolitan, I would find some way, any way, to build a time/reality machine that would shoot me into his world so I could slap some sense into him and make his stones drop back down. Can you really see those guys ordering these kinds of drinks?
No, neither can I.
The drink reflects the man, especially if that man is tough, street-wise, world-weary.
My head was spinning at this point, and it wasn’t the booze. It was because I’d never thought of how entwined the detective and his drink were, how symbolic a glass of champagne or a martini could be.
It certainly bore more research, and that was a fact.
And I decided to start straight away, by ordering another round.
Robert Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, CA. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.