Hammett: And Prohibition

Prohibition Photo

Per my normal Xmas rituals, I’ll be heading up to the dinner table in the hideout of Floyd “Tattoo the Wicked Cross” Salas, but here’s a tidbit to hold down a place under the tree: some casual speculation on Hammett and drinking by none other than Mark Murphy. You’ll remember Mark as one of the tenants of The Maltese Arms.

And isn’t speculating about Hammett and/or drinking what most of spend our lives doing?

Here’s Mark:


“Even though he wrote during Prohibition, few Hammett characters were teetotalers. For better or worse, he popularized what is now a cliché: the hard-drinking detective.” — from Vince Emery’s “Hammettisms in The Maltese Falcon.”


I’m just now celebrating the 84th or 85th anniversary of the time Hammett must have been working on The Maltese Falcon, in this very city, in this very building, by reading it again for the some-teenth time.

One of the scenes from this novel that always tickles me is Dundy and Polhaus’ first visit to Spade’s apartment on Post Street, from the chapter “Death in the Fog.” Between the time Spade arrives home from the scene of his partner’s death (3:40 am) and the time the street door buzzer sounds at 4:30, he had already finished his third drink and was just lighting his fifth cigarette.

When the two detectives enter, Spade offers them each a wine glass filled with rum, which they drink, though Dundy with perhaps a little less gusto than his partner: “Lieutenant Dundy turned to the table, picked up his glass, and slowly emptied it.” (Presumably not on the floor.) Spade also refills his own glass and begins work on what would be his fourth drink if we’re keeping count.

All of this at 4:30 in the morning, or thereabouts.

I’m reminded of the time, years ago, while hanging out at Sutter Station bar listening to my good friend Bill Arney tell his story of reading The Maltese Falcon and trying to recreate the ambience of this scene in his apartment. (He lived, not entirely coincidentally, in the apartment believed to have been occupied by Hammett at time he wrote the book.)

The twist was that Bill, being not terribly familiar with the variety of rums available back then, mistakenly picked up a bottle of Baccardi 151 and nearly choked on it when he tried to quaff it down, burning hell out of his throat in the process.

(Sorry, Bill, if I got some of the details wrong, but that’s how I remember it, from some twenty-odd years ago).

I tried a similar experiment last night with standard Baccardi white rum, and still have to say it is no easy trick to drink down three wine glasses in the space of fifty minutes as Spade does. And though I did manage to pull it off, I would have been hard pressed to have much of an intelligible conversation during or after, though having two homicide detectives for company, with me as a possible “person of interest” in a murder case, probably would have helped to keep my mind focused and alert.

From what I understand, it would not have been that unusual during the Prohibition era for a person to be drinking as much as Spade obviously does: it seems in almost every major scene in the book the reader finds Spade imbibing freely. Whether it’s Manhattan Cocktail from the desk drawer in his office, rum-filled wine glasses in his studio apartment, or coffee spiked with brandy while he grills Brigid for information on the Black Bird, the PI seems to be fairly well buzzed, if not falling down drunk, throughout much of the story, yet still manages to keep his focus and solve the case in the end.

What caught my attention about this particular scene, though, is the two on-duty police detectives drinking during the course of an interview connected with a pair of murder investigations. In today’s world obviously this would be unheard of, but perhaps in the context of the times this would not have raised too many eyebrows.

Indeed, since the liquor law was federal, it may not have been within the jurisdiction of these two city cops anyway to raise much of a fuss about it. And simply drinking, as I understand it, was not prohibited as long as you weren’t buying or selling it (or manufacturing it with the intent to sell). But still, the thought of on-duty cops drinking like this definitely raises my eyebrows. I’m just curious as to how the readers of the late twenties and early thirties must have reacted.

One must keep in mind, of course, that this is fiction, and possibly not reflective of how people actually conducted their affairs at the time. Even so, was it not the “realism” of Hammett’s writing style part of what made him stand out from the crowd of crime fiction writers of that era? Oooh, and it makes me wonder. . . .

Of course, the Op did his share of drinking, too; in fact, one of my favorite passages from any of the Op stories is from the opening paragraphs of the chapter “Old Elihu Talks Sense,” from Red Harvest, where the old man summons the Op back to his place to take him up on his offer to “clean up the city.” The call from Elihu’s secretary had sounded urgent, so he promised to hurry, asking the clerk to get him a taxi, then went

…up to my room for a shot of Scotch.

“I would rather have been cold sober, but I wasn’t. If the night held more work for me I didn’t want to go to it with alcohol dying in me. The snifter revived me a lot. I poured more of the King George into a flask, pocketed it, and went down to the taxi.”

That’s right: I’d rather show up at the client’s place drunk, than coming down off a serious liquor buzz.

This, mind you, was shortly after a full evening of fairly heavy drinking over at Dinah Brand’s pad on Hurricane Street. And, even before that, he had sunk at least a drink or two of “Scotch, lemon juice and grenadine” during his second interview with Robert Albury in the Op’s hotel room at the Great Western earlier that same day.

(I wonder if they serve that drink at John’s Grill? If not they should, and call it the Red Harvest. About.com has this drink labeled simply a “New York Cocktail.”)

Though I’ve never studied the subject of Prohibition in the US in any great depth, and have only Google, Wikipedia and Ken Burns as references, it has always fascinated me. My general impression was that during those times the major cities in the US could be classified as either “wet” or “dry,” meaning cities where the law was vigorously enforced were considered “dry,” while those that enjoyed a much more lax enforcement regime were the “wets.”

The famous Prohibition agent Izzy Einstein, of the storied “Izzy and Moe” team of rum sleuths, liked to see how long it took him to get a drink, whenever he would arrive in a new town. The winner for the nation’s number one wettest city, at least by this standard, was New Orleans, at thirty-five seconds: having stepped out of the train station and into a taxicab, he was greeted by a friendly cab driver who said “How do you do?” and immediately offered him a pull from a bottle of whisky retrieved from under the front driver’s seat.

Welcome to New Orleans!

I don’t really have any direct knowledge of whether San Francisco would have been wet or dry, but given its history my educated guess would be that it might well have been #2 after the Crescent City.

What we also know about Prohibition was that, in the end, its ultimate effect was to have increased rather than decreased the amount of drinking in the aggregate, nationwide. So it’s not difficult at all to believe these scenes of heavy drinking we find in Hammett’s works, almost all of which (certainly the most important ones) were written and set during the time the Volstead Act would have been in effect.

Even The Thin Man, with all its crazy drinking scenarios, must have been written before the Act’s repeal, as it was published in January of 1934, less than a month after the Blaine Act officially consigned Prohibition into the dustbin of history.

So one could say, with some accuracy, that the end of Hammett’s literary output coincides almost exactly with the passage of the 21st Amendment.

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