Reviewed by JOSEF HFFMANN :         

RITA ELIZABETH RIPPETOE – Booze and the Private Eye: Alcohol in the Hard-Boiled Novel. McFarland & Co., softcover, 2004.

BOOZE AND THE PRIVATE EYE

   “The hard-bitten PI with a bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer – it’s an image as old as the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction itself.” Thus begins the blurb for Rippetoe’s book.

   The frequent and often excessive consumption of alcohol by detectives in hard-boiled crime fiction is a notable phenomenon. What significance does this have in the novels? In her introductory chapter, Rippetoe emphasises that the permissive attitude towards alcohol was by no means a matter of course in the history of the USA, as demonstrated in particular by the Prohibition era, which plays an important role in crime literature.

   Whenever detectives or other persons drink alcohol during this period, they flout the legal order just as it pleases them. Drinking behaviour, including that which is permitted, makes a statement, especially in the case of male investigators, about how controlled and tough they are if they can absorb alcohol without malfunctioning.

   The circumstances and consequences of drinking behaviour indicate whether the detective is acting responsibly and has moral integrity. His particular and individually differentiated moral code becomes clear as a result. Furthermore, society’s changing attitude to alcohol consumption is also illustrated in crime novels, which reveals something of the social mores of the time.

   Rippetoe addresses these aspects of the detective novels of Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Robert B. Parker and Lawrence Block, devoting one chapter to each author. Hammett is accused of abandoning his realistic representation of the effects of alcohol consumption in the Op novels in favour of a reality-denying attitude to Nick and Nora Charles’ boozing in his last novel. Even the criminal acts of doing business with alcohol are palliated in the book. Rippetoe attributes this change to Hammett’s alcoholism.

   A characteristic of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is the fact that it is described repeatedly which alcoholic drinks he consumes where and when. His precisely controlled social behaviour serves to present him as a hero, who preserves his self-respect by means of his moral codes.

   There are three types of situation in which alcohol consumption fulfils a specific function and which are described in detail: hospitality, manipulation of the drinker and self-medication. Rippetoe explains the keen eye for the social state of drinking with the help of Chandler’s life story, including his career as a drinker.

   Mickey Spillane’s detective Mike Hammer differs from Philip Marlowe in two respects as far as alcohol consumption is concerned. First, Hammer usually doesn’t drink anything stronger than beer. In the later novels he prefers Miller Lite, which Spillane was contracted to advertise. Hammer thus demonstrates his connection with the majority of his readers, blue collar workers.

   Second, Hammer usually remains stone-cold sober when required by his job as a detective. He adapts his drinking behaviour to the professional moral code. The fact that he can hold his liquor when necessary is due to his status as a male superhero. Yet, like Chandler, Spillane also tends to trivialise the damage caused by alcoholism in some protagonists. However, the cause for this cannot be found in Spillane’s biography.

   Robert B. Parker’s detective Spenser has more in common with Mike Hammer than most readers and critics realise. This relates to acts of violence as much as to drinking behaviour. Spenser also tends to drink beer. He drinks Heineken, Amstel or Rolling Rock. At meals he drinks the appropriate wine. At times he drinks bourbon, in later novels Irish whiskey. But he always makes sure that he does not drink alcohol to excess. He owes that to his professional ethos.

   Rippetoe considers the effects of excessive alcohol consumption and alcoholism to be presented most realistically in the Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block, who himself had a drinking problem, which he has since overcome. The occasional investigator Scudder is an alcoholic, who over the course of the series undergoes a development from a self-endangering, uncontrolled drunk to a responsible, sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He has an ethical code that he follows tenaciously. The AA takes over the function of self-medication in Scudder’s life.

   The penultimate chapter is dedicated to the drinking behaviour of the hardened female detectives in the works of Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski. Because society likes to judge the alcohol consumption of women differently to that of men, the question arises as to how successful the transformation from the male to the female private detective has been in terms of alcohol consumption.

   The detectives Sharon McCone, Kinsey Milhone and Kat Colorado drink alcohol, generally in moderate quantities and, in line with the drinking customs of the 1980s and 1990s, often white wine. Each of the protagonists consumes alcohol at least occasionally for the purpose of self-medication, in order to be able to deal with the stress of the case.

   Each has personal dealings with someone who regularly drinks to excess. Kijewski shows most clearly the negative aspects of alcohol consumption, which is not surprising from a former bartender, who also furnishes her detective with this professional background.

   The final chapter contains a summary of the conclusions of the study. It is inexplicable to me why the novels of Sara Paretsky have not been treated in any detail, as V. I. Warshawski sometimes drinks too much alcohol. Moreover, surely the particularly bibulous investigators in the stories by Jonathan Latimer and Craig Rice should have received at least a mention, as is the case with the detectives of James Lee Burke and James Crumley, for example, in the final chapter.

   What is problematic about Rippetoe’s approach is that she only addresses critical-realistic presentations of alcohol consumption, thus excluding any humorous treatment in the manner of a screwball comedy. In this respect, her morality curtails literary freedom.

   “All writers are drunks, you know. Would-be, borderline, confirmed, sodden, reformed; one stage or another. All drunks, every damned one of us,” says pulp veteran Russell Dancer in Bill Pronzini’s detective novel Hoodwink. Alcohol abuse by crime writers is such a regrettable affliction. Some of the best were dependent on alcohol, at least during certain phases of their lives: Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Georges Simenon, Patricia Highsmith, Ted Lewis, James Ellroy and so on.

   Somehow, alcohol, at the right dose, appears to have an inspirational effect on the work of crime writers. And it relaxes the body and mind, which are exhausted from the act of writing, relatively quickly and easily. On the other hand the addiction has cast some authors such as Gil Brewer, Craig Rice and James Crumley into social squalor. Lawrence Block is of the opinion (according to Rippetoe) that alcohol abuse among writers leads to inhibited development and prevents them from breaking new ground.

   Rippetoe is an “independent scholar” of genre fiction, who has specialised in detective fiction. She lives in Orangevale, California. Her study is informative and worthy, albeit at times somewhat heavy going due to its academic style. But the topic has by no means been addressed comprehensively. Further examinations would be desirable.

— Translated by Carolyn Kelly.