Friday, December 11, 2009

She Never Mentions the Word, "Addiction"...*

Crime fiction (except for historical crime fiction) tends to reflect the society and times during which it’s written. As social attitudes change and knowledge increases, crime fiction changes. One way in which crime fiction seems to have changed quite a bit through the years is in the way that it portrays drinking and drug use. In a lot of crime fiction, there’s been an association between addiction to alcohol and drugs and crime, but the way in which crime fiction depicts drinking and drug use has changed a great deal.

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.

13 comments:

  1. THIS IS A SILENT FILM FROM 1916 ABOUT COCAINE IT'S ALSO A COMEDY IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT WE DARE YOU TO CHECK IT OUT

    Coke Enneday: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish 1916



    The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is a 1916 short film starring Douglas Fairbanks and Bessie Love. In this unusually broad comedy for Fairbanks, the acrobatic leading man plays "Coke Enneday," a cocaine-shooting detective parody of Sherlock Holmes given to injecting himself with cocaine from a bandolier of syringes worn across his chest and liberally helping himself to the contents of a hatbox-sized round container of white powder labeled "COCAINE" on his desk. The movie, written by D.W. Griffith, Tod Browning, and Anita Loos, displays a surreally lighthearted attitude toward cocaine and opium. Fairbanks otherwise lampoons Sherlock Holmes with checkered detective hat, coat, and even car, along with the aforementioned propensity for injecting cocaine whenever he feels momentarily down, then laughing with delight. In addition to observing visitors at his door on what appears to be a closed-circuit television referred to in the title cards as his "scientific periscope," a clocklike sign on the wall reminds him to choose between EATS, DRINKS, SLEEPS, and DOPE.

    http://www.2010homelesschampions.ca/video/leapingfish.html

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  2. Homelesschampions - I hadn't heard of The Mystery of the Leaping Fish before. Thanks very much for sharing it. I'd heard of, and seen, other parodies and spoofs of Holmes, but never this one.

    ...after viewing the film....

    Again, thanks for sharing that link. It really is an interesting perspective, and it reflects a culture that didn't take cocaine and heroin use nearly as seriously as we do today. It's a fascinating glimpse of the way drug use was viewed at another time. As you say, there are a lot of other ways in which Fairbanks lampoons Holmes, which is another topic in and of itself : ).

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  3. I have seen a big difference, definitely. And there are differences between crime genres regarding the depiction.

    My husband and I have a joke between us. Whenever we watch movies from the 1940s on TV we have to laugh at the amount of smoking and drinking going on. Everyone had big bottles of whiskey in their credenzas at the office and would drink in the middle of the day!

    Different times, different viewpoints, I guess.

    Elizabeth Mystery Writing is Murder

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  4. Elizabeth - You are so right about the older movies! Novels from the time, too, are the same way. Copious drinking was simply what people did - or seemed to do - at the time. That's especially true of 40's noir movies.

    You also make a very well-taken point about the effect of genre on people's use of alcohol/drugs. In general (although of course, not always), cozies don't tend to feature a lot of alcoholism and drug use. Noir fiction features a lot more of it, and so do some of the darker thrillers. That makes sense, too, when you consider that the context differs based on the kind of mystery it is. A lot of alcohol and/or other drugs is not as neat a fit for a cozy as it is for a darker police procedural, for instance. Thanks for bringing that up.

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  5. I've always been puzzled by the pub culture in U.K. In Simon Brett's Feathering mysteries it is almost a daily occurrence for the two women sleuths in the stories to go to the pub and down two large chardonnays each and carry on their merry way. Perhaps I should say "merry" way. For me, in my culture, that kind of drinking is almost shocking. It's a very sociable kind of life but something that the old Presbyterian/Lutheran society around here doesn't approve of. For people over 25, anyway. Coffee addiction is another thing, entirely. Thanks, Margot!

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  6. Bobbi - You make such a well-taken point about the effect of culture on the way drinking is portrayed. In some cultures, lots of alcohol is the custom, and nobody sees anything very strange about it. In other cultures, alcohol is consumed moderately, if at all, and in still others, it's taboo. So any crime fiction that's going to depict alcohol use has to consider the context of the novel. If it's a cultural context where drinking is frowned on or taboo, then it's not realistic - or at least it would be difficult - to portray a lot of alcoholism.

    And by the way, I agree with you about coffee; I have to confess that coffee happens to be my own addiction...

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  7. I don't know the older literature (or movies) all that well, but I do think that Dashiell Hammett (one of my favourite authors) is interesting on this particular question (a fascinating one, and a great blog post, as ever, Margot!). In his later (last?) book, The Thin Man, he does glamourise drinking in his affectionate portrayal of Nick and Nora - some think that these characters reflected Hammett himself and Lillian Hellman. Yet in other novels, for example The Dain Curse, he shows the perils of the a word.

    Sex addiction is another issue that is quite topical in crime fiction. Peter Temple's The Broken Shore examines a particular set of cases in the past. At the time, I was not so sure how believable this was - it was so awful that I was hoping it could not be true. Yet a few short years later, exactly similar cases came to light in the press - how horrible. Temple addresses this kind of addiction in other novels, too, as well as the more conventional ones (booze, gambling).

    I was fascinated to read The Thumbprint by Freidrich Glausner recently. It was written in about 1936 and like Christie I suppose the times did not allow very explicit writing, even if the author wanted to? Glauser was a drug addict, and it is interesting how in his novel he writes about women reading novels all night which renders them into a sort of trance during the day. I am sure this must be a code for some kind of drug or other addiction. He also writes in a similar way about the radio, which seems to have a mesmerising effect on people. Do you think that the older writers had to use codes in this way, or am I just imagining it?

    (I don't mean the very old writers - in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, the writing was horribly explicit!)

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  8. PS Bobbi - I would say that the behaviour you describe is not exactly typical in the UK! Probably supposed to be funny? It is relatively unusual for women to go into pubs to drink together - usually you see men or mixed groups. Not that I go into pubs much so I may be out of date. Women are more likely to meet up in a cafe, wine bar or restaurant - so far as I know. That't what I do anyway. (Not wine bars, actually, in my case - cafes or restaurants - sounds as if we are similar Bobbi in that we don't go out to drink as a social activity!)

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  9. Maxine - Thanks for bringing up Hammett; he was a terrific author : ). You're absolutely right, too; in The Thin Man (you're right - that was Hammett's last novel), there's a great deal of glamour associated with drinking, and I think that was fairly typical of the time, actually, not only in crime fiction, but also in movies.

    It's funny you'd mention sex addiction. Certainly it's a reality, and today, it's being explored in several novels. I admit I haven't read the Temple one you mention (although I like his Jack Irish series), but Julia Cameron's The Dark Room addresses the issue, and so do lots of others. I think that's a more recent development, though, possibly because it's been taboo for a long time.

    That brings me to your other question about using code words for topics that were taboo in earlier times. I would say you're not imagining things at all. Certainly Agatha Christie used euphemisms, especially in her earlier novels. For instance, in The Murder on the Links, the victim, Paul Renauld, is said to have been carrying on "an intrigue" with another character in the novel. Christie doesn't get more explicit than that (although she does use the word "mistress"), but it's obvious she's referring to a sexual affair. In many ways, too, Christie was ahead of her times, so I'd guess other writers of the day were even more careful about the way they expressed themselves. Of course, writers have been doing that for a lot longer than there's been crime fiction. Shakespeare used allegory and code words quite frequently so that he could express himself without running afoul of the Powers That Were.

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  10. I remembered a very good book abotu alchohol addiction - The Dinner Club by Saskia Noort. And her other (even better) book that's been translated, Back to the Coast, is a good example of another recent post of yours, Margot - poison. (Not too much of a spoiler to write that, I hope.)

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  11. Maxine - Thanks so much for sharing those titles. I really wish I had your background in Scandandavian and, in this case, Dutch crime fiction. I will have to find those Noort titles and start broadening myself.

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  12. They are jolly good, Margot - addictive in themselves;-) (Dutch, actually, not Scandinavian but next door!). They are very short so if you have a spare hour or so, you'll whizz through them and be glad you did so, I predict.

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  13. Thanks, Maxine : ). I will definitely look for them.

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