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Jack Smith

Beer has to fit the literary bill when detectives are deprived of that last, languid cigarette

June 03, 1986|Jack Smith

As a reader of detective-suspense novels, I have noticed, in recent years, a change in the habits of the heroes:

Most of them don't smoke anymore.

This change has come about so gradually that I might not have noticed it if I hadn't picked up an old William P. McGivern paperback to read for the second time.

It was "Margin for Terror," about an American businessman in Rome who is lured into a ring of Soviet executioners by a frightened young American woman.

I doubt if there is a chapter in which the hero doesn't light up a cigarette. It seems as natural to him as thinking or talking. It becomes a way of punctuating a conversation, or ending a scene, or simply giving him a moment to collect his wits.

For example, on Page 18, the girl, a stranger to him, asks him to take her up to his room, and gets into the elevator with him.

"The girl put her head back against the wall of the car and closed her eyes. 'I'm sorry,' she said.

"There wasn't anything to say. Mark took out cigarettes. 'Smoke?' "

This was a common use of the cigarette: to bridge an awkward silence, or a tremulous silence, or a significant silence.

Later on the same page, it says: "He gave her a cigarette and she accepted a light and inhaled deeply. . . ."

Crisis past.

On Page 27 it sounds as if Mark has decided to quit the habit: "Mark was pacing the floor, smoking what he'd told himself would be a last cigarette when the knock sounded on the door. . . ."

One page later: "Mark lit another cigarette, slightly relieved."

He makes no further resolutions. Nor does she. Both of them go on smoking page after page.

"Margin for Terror" was published in 1953. That was 11 years before the U. S. Surgeon General found that smoking cigarettes was associated with lung cancer, coronary artery disease, chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

I have an idea that the heroes smoked habitually in every book of that genre published in the 1950s and probably even in the 1960s. But eventually most of our heroes gave it up.

I am rather addicted to the novels of Robert B. Parker, whose private-eye hero, known only as Spenser (with an s , like the poet), does not smoke.

Spenser comments on this himself in "The Judas Goat":

"I hadn't smoked in 10 or 12 years, but I wished then I'd had a cigarette that I could have taken a final drag on and flipped still burning into the river as I turned and walked away. . . ."

Oh, indeed, there is drama in the gestures of smoking: the cigarette flipped still burning into the river to show one's sudden decision and determination; the cigarette lit slowly, the match shaken out with languor, to show one's composure; the cigarette ground out with a heel to show one's anger.

And of course the famous cigarettes lit two on a match, by Paul Henreid in "Now, Voyager," to show his awakening affinity with Bette Davis. Then the deep drags, and the smoke blown out slowly and simultaneously, while the eyes meet meaningfully through the cloud.

Spenser doesn't smoke, but he does drink beer. And how he drinks beer.

I am puzzled that Spenser manages to detect so well ("I'm a detective," he says in self-mockery to his woman friend. "Clues are my game.") and also achieve physical domination over every threatening male (and one rogue female) when, by actual count of the number of beers he consumes on any day, he ought to be waxed.

Spenser drinks beer the way Mark used to light cigarettes, except he seems to enjoy it more. He gets going on Page 15 of "The Promised Land."

"Susan took the first shower and I had a bottle of Amstel while I called for reservations. In fact I had three."

Amstel is Spenser's favorite beer, but in its absence he will drink anything.

" 'Draft beer?' I asked.

" 'Schlitz,' he said. . . .

" 'I'll have one. . . .' "

He notes that the bartender drew the beer in a tall straight glass, the way it should be. No schooners or tulip shapes.

He orders two linguica sandwiches and another beer. "Rudy brought the sandwiches and looked at my half-sipped glass. I finished it--simple politeness, otherwise he'd have had to wait while I sipped--and he refilled the glass. . . ."

Again, later: "The dining room was still open so I went in and had six oysters and a half bottle of Chablis and a one-pound steak with Bearnaise sauce and a liter of beer. . . ."

In "The Godwulf Manuscript" a few beers help Spenser over a lonely hour in his apartment:

"In my kitchen I sat at the counter and opened a can of beer. . . . I got another beer. After three or four beers everything began looking better to me. . . ."

Spenser is so thoroughly finished with cigarettes that he doesn't even keep any for emergencies. He brings home a college girl who needs a refuge:

"She had not spoken since I'd found her. Now she said, 'Do you have any cigarettes?'

"I found some thin filter tips in a fancy feminine package that a friend had left in one of the kitchen drawers. . . ."

I have an idea that Mark is long since gone with lung cancer, and his young American beauty with him.

Meanwhile, Spenser jogs, hits a punching bag, lifts weights and stays in shape, despite the beer.

I just hope his liver doesn't get him before mine gets me.

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