The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for being a teetotaller


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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Being a teetotaller

Cure: Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

If you gave up chocolate for Lent, and kept to it, you're probably feeling smug today – you proved your willpower and can reward yourself by indulging tomorrow. But if you gave up drink and kept to it, you might be in something of a quandary. Being on the wagon may have made you feel more sprightly in body – yet dull in spirit. When your friends suggested a sneaky Death in the Afternoon, you were the damp squib ordering the mocktail. But does abstaining from alcohol mean you can never be louche? Not necessarily, if you keep tight company with one of literature's most adept drinkers.

In private detective Philip Marlowe, Chandler created the epitome of hard-boiled cool. Quick-thinking, fast-talking Marlowe is at home in the place where big money, corruption and glamour intersect. Villains pursued by Marlowe on the streets of Thirties LA greet him with smiles that are at once "cosy and acid", because they know he'll extract compromising evidence from them eventually – and that he'll do it so charmingly they'll almost enjoy the process. Living as he does by his own sense of justice, Marlowe manages to be a force for good but never a goody-goody. We put this down largely to his way with the booze.

Marlowe drinks elegantly, and only when the occasion demands. Rye whisky is his weakness; but he uses a shot of whatever's going to encourage his suspects to spill. And liquor isn't just to loosen tongues. Drink – pouring it, sipping it – allows him to create a moment in which time stands still. Whatever happens next – be it the delivery of a line, a punch or a look – has the power to stop a bullet.

Hang out with the quietly heroic Marlowe for a novel or two, and let his wily sensibility slip into your bloodstream. Learn to drink the right thing – in the right dosage – at the right time. And if that proves a tall order, see next week's column, too.