In the early days of crime fiction, drinking was a natural part of daily life, and although there were mentions of those who drank too much, alcoholism wasn’t really described as an addiction; rather, it was considered a sign of lack of moral fiber. Drug use was common in those days, too. For example, Sherlock Holmes is a user of both cocaine and morphine. Dr. Watson remonstrates with him, but Holmes sees no problem with his drug use. For instance, The Sign of the Four begins with an interesting discussion between the two on the topic. Watson notices Holmes preparing a syringe and asks whether he’s injecting cocaine or morphine. When Holmes tells Watson it’s cocaine and offers him some, Watson says that he’s not strong enough to tolerate its effects. Holmes then says,
“Perhaps you are right, Watson…I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment."
Watson’s response is equally interesting:
“Count the cost! Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process, which involves increased tissue-change and may at last leave a permanent weakness. You know, too, what a black reaction comes upon you. Surely the game is hardly worth the candle. Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed? Remember that I speak not only as one comrade to another, but as a medical man to one for whose constitution he is to some extent answerable."
Despite Watson’s objections, Holmes continues his drug use and what’s really interesting about it is that it’s almost glamorized in the Holmes stories. Holmes disapproves of opium use, but not because it’s a drug; rather, he sees it as having a dulling effect on the intellectual processes.
By the time Agatha Christie was writing, drug use had lost its air of glamour. In fact, in Death in the Air (AKA Death in the Clouds) and Murder in Mesopotamia, there are mentions of characters with drug habits. In both cases, the drug use is portrayed quite negatively and in Murder in Mesopotamia, Poirot mentions that prolonged drug use has the effect of “blunting the moral sense.” That negative portrayal of drug use is even more pronounced in Third Girl, where drug use and abuse plays an important role in the case of Norma Restarick, a young woman who comes to Poirot because she thinks that she may have committed a murder.
Many modern crime novels explore the seamier side of drug use and abuse, and quite often, it’s portrayed as the cause of a great deal of heartache, crime and murder. For example, several of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels deal with drug wars, AIDS, prostitution and other tragic consequences of drug use. Hide and Seek, for instance, begins with Rebus being called to the scene when the body of what seems like just another dead drug addict is found in an Edinburgh housing development in the worst part of town. On the surface, it’s just another overdose death, but the body is surrounded with satanic symbols, and it’s not long before Rebus suspects that it’s much more than just a drug death.
While there seems to be a definite trend in crime fiction to portray drug use negatively, the use of alcohol isn’t nearly so clear-cut. In several Agatha Christie novels, for instance, there are alcoholic characters who are presented unsympathetically. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we’re told that Roger Ackroyd, whose death Hercule Poirot investigates, is a widower because his wife “drank herself into her grave.” In Death on the Nile, one of the characters, Salome Otterbourne, is an alcocholic who’s caused her daughter a great deal of unhappiness because of her drinking. And in The ABC Murders, one of the victims whose murders Poirot investigates has an unpleasant, alcoholic husband who’s the primary suspect in his wife’s murder – at first.
Some sleuths, too, are shown as alcoholics who struggle with their addiction. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is one example. Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole is another example. So is Carol O’Connell’s Detective Riker, who mentors her sleuth Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory. There are, of course, many other examples throughout the history of crime fiction. So on one hand, there’s a solid argument that the tendency has been to portray drinking in a negative way. In earlier crime fiction, that negativity was because those who drank too much were presumed not to have enough self-discipline to curb their drinking habits. As time’s gone by and we understand alcoholism better, there’s been a tendency to portray alcoholism as an addiction, rather than a lack of discipline. Even today, there isn’t agreement, anyway, about what pushes some people into alcoholism.
What blurs the picture of alcoholism in crime fiction is that there’s also, in some ways, a glamorization of drinking. For example, in Golden Age crime fiction (e.g. the work of Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers), meals are nearly always accompanied by a great deal of alcohol. Careful attention is paid to the wine that’s served, and whenever guests visit, some form of alcohol is served. Characters who object to drinking are sometimes portrayed negatively, too. For instance, in Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Poirot investigates the death of Miss Emily Arundell, a wealthy spinster. At the beginning of the novel, Miss Arundell has a conversation with a friend of hers about her niece Theresa’s fiancé, Rex Donaldson. During that conversation, she mentions her disappointment with Donaldson’s request to drink barley water when she’d “opened Papa’s special port” for a dinner he’d attended. There’s a distinct message there that gentlemen, anyway, should drink at least some alcohol.
Classic “hardboiled” detective fiction is frequently centered around a hard-drinking sleuth who may go on binges, but who also finds the killer, beats the “bad guy,” and often, has a real appeal. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is, of course, the classic example of this kind of sleuth. So is Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer. For these sleuths, drinking is presented more realistically and in more graphic detail, but is still almost glamorous.
Even in more modern fiction, frequent drinking isn’t always shown in a bad light. For instance, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse gets many more calories in liquid form than in solid form, and that has some very negative effects on his health. In fact, his drinking aggravates his diabetes which, eventually, is fatal. Comments about his overindulgence are sprinkled throughout the series. And yet, he’s a brilliant sleuth, he’s functional, he meets plenty of women, and one could make an argument that he’s very successful. He even says of himself that he thinks more clearly when he’s drinking than when he’s not drinking, and there’s an air of romanticism about him. Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is also a heavy drinker, and we see the struggles he faces with that part of his life. Yet, he’s a sympathetic character. He’s hard-working, driven and has a passion for justice.
I’ve only been able to give a small picture of drug and alcohol use in mystery novels. There are many, many examples that I haven’t mentioned. What do you think about the way alcohol and drug use are portrayed in crime fiction? Is it realistic? Have you seen changes in that portrayal over the years?
*The title of this post is the first line of The Black Crowes' She Talks To Angels.