“I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things.”— Philip Marlowe
The image of a noir detective is ingrained through some of the most iconic movies and actors of all time, from Bogart as Sam Spade to Mitchum as Philip Marlowe, hard-boiled detectives fighting off gangsters and femme fatales, all for a day’s pay. But so much of the character of fictional detectives can be gleaned from their choice of libations. There were no frozen daiquiris served with pink straws.
Hard-boiled detectives drank classic drinks, strong and without fuss. They drank them in seedy, dark dives and old-school hotel bars, in cocktail lounges on the side of a steakhouse, or at a local pub.
“There’s something so romantically noir about quiet conversations in a dark, smoky bar—plots hatched, secrets revealed, confessions whispered,” said bestselling mystery author Lisa Unger.
Writer Raymond Chandler’s literary detective, Philip Marlowe, was an avid drinker. He always kept an office bottle of Old Forester bourbon. “I reached down and put the bottle of Old Forester on the desk. It was about a third full,” Marlowe says in the novel The Little Sister.
Author Toby Widdicome’s book, A Reader’s Guide to Raymond Chandler, presents a comprehensive list of the drinks featured in Chandler’s work: “In ‘Finger Man,’ there’s Bacardi, and in ‘Big City Clues,’ Bacardi and grenadine. In The High Window, there’s Four Roses Whiskey. In ‘Wrong Pigeon,’ there are double Gibsons.” The list also includes Old Grand-dad whiskey and Brooklyn Scotch.
Marlowe’s lasting contribution to cocktail culture was the gimlet. In the novel The Long Goodbye, English ex-pat and enthusiastic drinker Terry Lennox tells Philip Marlowe that “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.”
Marlowe then takes his first look. “The bartender set the drink in front of me. With the lime juice it has a sort of pale greenish yellowish misty look. I tasted it. It was both sweet and sharp at the same time. The woman in black watched me. Then she lifted her own glass towards me. We both drank. Then I knew hers was the same drink.”
2 oz. gin
¾ oz. Rose’s Lime Juice
Add to cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Strain into cocktail glass.
Dashiell Hammett’s private detective Sam Spade was a whiskey guy, while Hammett’s more comedic husband-and-wife crime-solving duo Nick and Nora Charles were rarely without glass in hand. They were experts at crafting the perfect cocktail, as Nick Charles describes in the 1934 novel The Thin Man. Nick opines, “The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to foxtrot time, a Bronx to two-step time, but a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”
Writer James Crumley’s mysteries are packed full of bars, beer, and seedy characters. In his 1975 novel The Wrong Case, private investigator Milo Milodragovitch offers a long soliloquy on imbibing. He starts off, “Son, never trust a man who doesn’t drink because he’s probably a self-righteous sort, a man who thinks he knows right from wrong all the time. Some of them are good men, but in the name of goodness, they cause most of the suffering in the world. They’re the judges, the meddlers. And, son, never trust a man who drinks but refuses to get drunk. They’re usually afraid of something deep down inside, either that they’re a coward or a fool or mean and violent. You can’t trust a man who’s afraid of himself. But sometimes, son, you can trust a man who occasionally kneels before a toilet. The chances are that he is learning something about humility and his natural human foolishness, about how to survive himself. It’s damned hard for a man to take himself too seriously when he’s heaving his guts into a dirty toilet bowl.”
As long as people write mysteries, there will be detectives with a penchant for booze. Being a private detective is a tough job. Long hours and low pay make for a stressful day. Sometime you just need to go into a bar, like Mickey Spillane’s literary creation Mike Hammer, and order “a double bourbon. And leave the bottle.”