For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.
The words of W. H. Auden from his essay The Guilty Vicarage which was published in Harper’s magazine in May 1948. Its sub-heading is Notes on the detective story, by an addict and reading it from a distance of 66 years got me thinking about what draws us to crime fiction. Auden was a self-confessed crime fiction fanatic and it is fascinating to reflect on how many of us are hooked on the genre. I came across a book earlier this month entitled Tequila Mockingbird which is a selection of cocktail recipes inspired by classic works of fiction. It had me reaching for Auden’s essay because whilst I’ve long understood the appeal of crime fiction, I’ve always thought it odd that we are drawn to its characters. An astonishing amount of them suffer from addiction in one form or another and in today’s post I’d like to touch on the rye in the catcher.
Not just the rye, but any alcohol and anything which defines the character. I’d like to begin with perhaps the most addictive personality I can think of, James Bond from the pen of Ian Fleming. Whether it be on the page or the big screen 007 is a compelling character but he seems addicted to, well pretty much everything. He drinks gambles and womanizes his way through each story. Only recent nods to a more socially acceptable lifestyle have robbed him of his cigarettes, but deep down you know he’d light up in a flash if allowed. I find it interesting that of all his vices the film studio chose smoking as the one to cut. I guess it was the easiest thing to picture the character without. I am not sure a tee-total James Bond would work at all, but then it could have been a lot worse. They could have given him an e-cigarette. I think that is one gadget he can do without.
But why then do I want to see James Bond light up? Why, for that matter do we devour books stuffed full of characters with vices that either consume them or define them? We know these things are bad for us, Ian Fleming, we should remember, died at the age of 56 after a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking yet we seem drawn to these habits as character traits. The genre really is full of addicts. Harry Hole (Jo Nesbø), John Rebus (Ian Rankin) and Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter) struggle with the bottle but sell in their millions. Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) and Sam Spade (Dashiell Hammett) both chain smoke and have plenty of booze in their office desks yet we adore them as characters. Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) takes drugs, and both Temperance Brennan (Kathy Reich) and Kurt Wallander (Henning Mankell) are recovering alcoholics or in denial about being one. My current favourite is Hayden Glass (Stephen Jay Schwartz) who comes with the following health warning, LAPD detective Hayden Glass has only one vice…the girls who work the streets he’s vowed to protect. Everything about that tagline screams hardboiled and the character has been unsurprisingly popular.
What does all this say about us as readers? Why do we choose to reach for characters with such obvious problems? Well, for me, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, we struggle to connect with the concept of perfection. Characters who can do everything and remain charming and friendly whilst doing so don’t, on the whole, drive compelling stories. When your flaw is that you aren’t flawed you can be difficult to relate to by others. If however, you make the hero flawed, perhaps by being addicted to something, then people can relate more easily. Stretch this to its limits and the character comes alive in a way that makes people care. Add a skilled writer into the equation and the impact is immediate. All the characters listed above come from extraordinary writers who tread the line between cliché and boring with a literary deftness that takes the breath away. There is, however, more than a little home-grown experience put to use within the canon. Fleming as we have seen indulged frequently and Stephen Jay Schwartz, now recovered from sex addiction, used his own experience to bring Hayden Glass to life.
If readers are drawn to addiction because a flawed character is one we can relate to then this presents the writer with a huge opportunity. If your character is solving the case too quickly then a liberal sprinkling of heavy drinking and hangovers is a suitable distraction. If you haven’t seen it you should take a look at the HBO series True Detective. It subscribes to the theory that alcohol is currency and as a result, the show reeks of booze. But rather than worry about what is bad for us, or whether we should slavishly follow the rules let’s just enjoy this from the opening of the first James Bond novel Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming.
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it. James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired.
A global phenomenon was born right there. Does anyone fancy a Tequila Mockingbird? I’ve suddenly developed a real thirst.