Booze, Bad Guys, and Bamboozlement

Analyzing the Stereotype of Detectives and the Bottle



illustration by Roy Tompkins

The beauty of the detective genre is that you can do with it pretty much as you please. Raymond Chandler tossed the initial wrecking ball, and the experimentation continues in his wake. Sub-genres erupt out of sub-genres, all following a basic plotline as entrenched as the Himalayas. "Eco-noir," tough-as-nails female detectives, and African-American "facilitators" only begin the list now confronting the reader.

Drunken ex-cops battlin' booze, bad guys, and their own personal bamboozlement seems to flow naturally into this conceit. In fact, the idea of protagonist as alcoholic is so evolutionarily perfect it squeaks; boozy loner as martyr crucifying his or herself on the altar of our collective corruption: Sean Penn employed for life. Yet important aspects of the category remain undefined.

Granted, substance abuse abounds in contemporary detective fiction -- but as scenery, not a central plot component. Altogether too many recent noir romans a clefs come ready-made with the same tired, old plots decked out with gaudy new hooks like whores in the midst of a sexual plague. Only a few authors seem, or have the ability to realize these "hooks" need a personality, a raison d'être as it were. With this in mind, alcoholism seems a wonderful choice. Indeed, cops and alcohol go together like pancakes and syrup. It makes sense -- job's rough, stuff's legal, deadens senses continually exposed to the absolute worst in human nature. Unfortunately, alcohol addiction hits an easy 10 percent of those who indulge, and withdrawal, especially involuntary withdrawal, can kill you, if not physically, then spiritually.

Trying to explain this addiction to the uninitiated is like trying to explain calculus to farm animals. Certainly analogies exist (think the heroin withdrawal scenes in Trainspotting times 10), still, they lack that special something -- all the indescribable nuance of the three- to five-day trip out of the void remaining, sadly, ill-described. "Citizens" (to paraphrase Hell's Angel leader Sonny Barger) will never feel anything like it, save perhaps the angst generated by obsessive near-romance. The dynamic, the almost forecast deconstruction of self in sacrifice -- à la Truffaut's The Story of Adele H. -- to an intangible is unmistakably similar. Not surprisingly, intelligent transposition to literature takes a sure, experienced hand.

The undisputed master of this sort of endeavor isn't someone like James Ellroy or James Crumley -- substance abuse seems ancillary and consequential in the work of both -- but the relatively mellow, and even genial, Lawrence Block, author of such "New Age" fare as Ariel and Random Walk.

Block's protagonist, ex-NYPD Detective Matthew Scudder, is an uncomfortable archetype, boozy cynicism squeezed out of him like spilled drinks from a bar rag. With a neatly written, purposely loose trilogy (A Stab in the Dark, Eight Million Ways to Die, and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes) and a chillingly atmospheric short story (Like a Lamb to Slaughter) Scudder (and, one suspects, the author, by proxy, as well) confronts, accepts, assimilates, and finally remembers his alcoholism in a manner best understood by continual exposure to group meetings designed to navigate the emotional turmoil generated by the disorder. All of Block's subsequent Scudder output has carried the distinct moral imprint of Alcoholics Anonymous, an institution redolent of a peculiarly "American" character.

Lydia LaPlante comes from the BBC with a well-deserved reputation for characterization as a result of her teleplays for Prime Suspect, shown here on KLRU. Known primarily for actress Helen Mirren's pithy, highlight performance as Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, the entire series is a raw-boned little gem, throwing off more riffs and ideas in an episode than a similar American programmer can work up in an entire season, without once appearing to dance for our edification. The idea of LaPlante transferring her sharp economy to a California setting, with a washed-up, alcoholic female protagonist, as she proposed in Cold Shoulder (Random House, $24, hard), seems near-perfect. Where's Susan Hayward now that we really need her?

The pity is LaPlante's, as only someone of Hayward's fiercely Celtic sense of aplomb could lend sincerity to this puppy. As actual literature, Cold Shoulder is stone-cold dreck, so far removed from the author's television work as to appear written by somebody else. It's got Movie-of-the-Week smeared across every page like heavy mayo on a BLT sub, right down to the tawdry plot twists (transsexuals, mommy fetishes born in hell). Literary references quickly begin to seem superfluous. In reference to alcoholism, however, the storyline actually functions as a fairly accurate, if soporifically simplified account of an alcoholic's slip into oblivion, and the first, tentative baby-steps back into the land of the living.

Pasadena Detective Lorraine Page loses all -- hubby, kids, career, the works -- in her alcohol-fueled plunge to the bottom. Though narratively condensed to little more than a film treatment, LaPlante manages to convey at least some aspects of the disease, allergy, whatever-we're-calling-it-this-week with the brightness of an interrogation lamp. As Detective Page hits the skids with increasing purposefulness (subconsciously in love with her equally alcoholic partner who has, somewhat inconveniently, died in her arms after a shoot-out), hubby Mike runs the whole Kubler-Ross gambit -- denial, bargaining, et al. before opting to bag the whole mess. LaPlante's prod and puncture administered to those who have been there is the argument handed to Mike by a buddy helping him gut-out the final confrontation. "Christ almighty. When are you gonna face facts? She's a drunk, and she was dragging you down with her. If she won't get help, you're gonna have to forget her, act like she's dead. Believe me, it's the best way. Say to yourself she's dead, be a hell of a lot easier."

Page hits bottom, writhing out her day-to-day, slo-mo convulsion on a seedy stage of alleyways, hourly motel beds, and floors. Finally, in her umpteenth detox, she meets a fellow-sufferer with whom she somehow bonds -- a dumpy Shirley Booth lookalike named Rosie. These two proceed to pair up under the Faganesque tutelage of Rosie's male AA sponsor (a program no-no illustrating the author's extensive familiarity with the organization), more or less serving as props for one another's sobriety. It is here, with the self-ravaged alcoholics in conflict with "Earthlings" (non-alcoholics) while coming to an uneasy accommodation with their own condition, that LaPlante shows even a glimmer of the savvy and intelligence she displays in Prime Suspect.

LaPlante seems, basically, a scenarist and dialogue writer, albeit a seasoned one. Her literary narrative drive doesn't work because she doesn't seem to care about the act of creating it. It's almost as if having cut her teeth in the birthplace of the modern language, practice in its largest export seems, for the author, an afterthought. The reader can almost feel LaPlante artistically lowering her sights for this, her first American hardback -- as if writing now for a kindergarten class, or a pack of dogs. It's all standard film plot stuff -- a dozen or so clichés floating around a central "charismatic" character with the same sort of single-minded determinism that propelled actress Sharon Stone's career ascent. And Stone seems Lorraine Page's prototype. This becomes, at points, so overt as to constitute advance typecasting, but it does accentuate the simple-minded distinctions the author seems to be serving up. Whereas Mirren in Prime Suspect is a study in naturalism, this hypothetical Sharon Stone vehicle strikes one as sharply "cinematic" -- and therein uniquely "American" as well: the difference between apprenticeship and being discovered on Star Search.

With this in mind, LaPlante's Lorraine Page becomes almost purely cinematic, purely "American"; hell, damn near Hawksian. We've left the realm of the lowly scrivener. We makin' movies -- TV movies -- now: the cinema of the star-cult, the character so strongly delineated, so one-dimensional, so utterly imaginary as to need a star to assay unto celluloid what it lacks on the printed page -- a crumpled Valkyrie balloon awaiting blast after blast of rarefied hot air to bring it to life.

What better Valkyrie than Sharon Stone, especially with scenes like Lorraine's dreadful meeting with her remarried ex Mike and their two daughters, both now teetering on monied Heathers-like adolescence. At one juncture, the younger of the pair unhappily accepts a doll from Page, asking "Does it talk?" before sliding into childish braggadocio about the dolls in her own collection.

Lorraine looked at the moody-faced child. `This one drinks and spits in your face.'

The little girl's mouth trembled. `Sally, it was just a joke!'

The child ran past Mike. Lorraine laughed at his worried expression. `Sorry Mike, I never was very good with them.'

Such fun is fleeting, however, as the sober-sided end of the plot delves into Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization presented by the author with true Lifetime woman's television panache. One can't help but wonder if LaPlante has ever attended any of the group's hour-long meetings as anything but the worst kind of dilettante. Got a problem? Hit a Meeting, listen to some drunkalogues, whine a touch yourself, put-a-buck-in-the-basket, and bingo! -- you feel better, right? So the author would have us believe, using "Let's go to a meeting," as a kind of replacement mantra for the "Lez getta a drink" of the past. The reader can't help but expect Page to duck off into a bathroom somewhere to commune with the ghost of AA founder Bill Wilson à la Val Kilmer's Elvis take in the Tarantino-scripted Tony Scott film True Romance.

Alcoholics Anonymous itself is the creation of Wilson and an alcoholic physician, Robert Smith (Dr. Bob). Wilson was, in contemporary parlance, a "trip," an unbalanced mixture of egotism and self-inflicted inferiority slopping from extreme to extreme. Alcohol initially composed the mix, then turned on him -- an inevitability with alcoholics -- embracing him in a death grip. Finally, in his umpteeth detox, Wilson had a "spiritual experience," emerged a changed individual, and the rest is history. How convenient.

Reality is somewhat less glib. Wilson, the Roaring Twenties equivalent of a Reagan-era junk bond con, discovered he had both a soul and a conscience, whether he liked it or not. And in order to salve the seemingly ingrained sadness in his heart of hearts he realized he was going to have to live by that conscience, rather than drown it, if he was going to find peace in either life or death.

LaPlante catches the personality type in Page, but misses the point entirely in reference to rectification. This is not to deny the aforementioned "American" feel of Alcoholics Anonymous -- the square dances, the restaurant invasions, the hale-and-hearty crap -- nor its intrinsic therapeutic value on a mass level. But a personal relationship with the program is, how you say, so much more "French" in its adherence, and plain bare-assed "Russian" in its pre-emptive psychic probes. LaPlante's gloss, especially in regard to direct participation by her heroine, constitutes a laugh, and nothing more.

Lawrence Block, on the other hand, deals with protagonist Scudder's involvement on a far more Zen level. The aforementioned "trilogy" (A Stab in the Dark, etc.) is, essentially, the slow, careful creation of a persona, the author rendering both his character and said character's milieu with surreal clarity. Block's Scudder output since incorporates the detective's achievement of sobriety into each successive story line, with varying degrees of success.

The most recent Scudder novel, 1994's A Long Line of Dead Men, finds the investigator deeply immersed in the AA lifestyle, the plot going so far as to have Scudder "12-step" someone who, in actuality, is malevolently "13-stepping" him. Never mind a translation, the point is already obvious. It's all beginning to pale a bit now, five novels beyond inception. A kind of smug lethargy has set in that, despite the fine writing, flattens the character's previously desperate stance. With a sense of justice, aptly manipulating Wilson's concept of "conscience," increasingly biblical in denouement, Scudder is becoming regent-like, somehow elevated above the crowd as a result of his alcoholic Gethsemane. One can only hope the author is devious enough to be setting the detective up for a messy, agonizing fall off the wagon. Scudder's sobriety is beginning to bore me. He'd make an interesting AA sponsor, but as a fictional character, Scudder moves me more when he's drunk and squirming.

One thing is certain. Block remains king of the heap, sub-genre-wise. Future challengers should bear in mind a consciousness is not something easily aped.

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