07 October 2011

The Smoking Gun -- Sort of . . .

First: A Little Confession . . .

I suppose there's something I ought to get off my chest -- before you find out from somebody else, and feel I betrayed your trust by not disclosing it up-front.

You see: I smoke cigars.

Five to ten a day, actually.

And, if you happen to be one of those very kind souls who thinks: "Well, maybe he only smokes little ones, with that flavored tobacco that doesn't smell so bad," I'm afraid I have to disabuse you of that notion.

The cigars I smoke aren't small at all; they're usually six to eight inches long, by a fifty-four to sixty ring gauge. Sometimes larger. (Maybe this is a good time to ask Rob if congress can confirm that Freud really said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.") Additionally, my cigars are never made from sweet smelling flavored tobacco; they're malodorous and strong. Very strong. Fidel Castro Cigar strong (which means they're rough--and absolutely evil-smelling ... if you don't like cigars, that is.)

I acquired this "classy" habit for the same reason most Special Forces Engineer Sergeants do. You see, an SF Engineer is the "Demo Man," or explosives expert on an A-Team. We're taught to construct field-expedient demolitions and/or incendiary devices out of common household products, so that we can fabricate and employ explosives even when working in a denied environment (a place ruled by the other side during war time) when we haven't received a resupply in a while.

And, like every other SF Engineer who's served time on Smoke Bomb Hill back at Ft. Bragg, I was taught that a cigar can be used as a "punk" to light military time-fuse during high wind conditions. (You can't do this with a pipe or cigarette, because they don't burn hot enough to ignite the powder train inside the fuse.) Consequently, I taught myself to smoke cigars. And, if you ever wind up meeting a dozen men who work on an A-Team for some reason, it's a good bet that the two guys smoking cigars are the Team's Engineers.

Naturally, over time I came to learn a few tricks of the trade concerning how to light time-fuse this way. First: it helps to tap the ash off the end of your cigar before you hold it to the fuse. Otherwise the ash can act as an insulator, and you might wind up melting the plastic casing around the fuse without igniting the powder train within. This means you have to hack off a length of melted fuse, and try all over again. Likewise, it helps if you give the cigar a few strong puffs, to stoke the heat, just before touching it to the fuse. And, finally: Try not to draw (inhale) through the cigar, once you've touched it to a fuse, because some of the plastic usually melts into the end of the cigar -- and dragging those noxious fumes into your oral cavity is a rather unfortunate experience.

I picked up that last tip, as a very new engineer, when lighting a series of four charges my A-Team had emplaced during a training raid. The charges were roughly fifty meters apart, and I had to sprint between them in order to minimize our time on target. By the time I was finished puffing the fuse on the fourth charge to life, my head was spinning. When we pulled off the target, I was doing my impression of "Julie" in the opening credits of that old television show The Mod Squad -- my feet barely touching the ground as two guys ran alongside, carrying me between them.

What does all this have to do with sleuthing, you ask?

Well, since I enjoy cigars, I sometimes have my story characters stop by my favorite cigar store here in Scottsdale. I thought this was an original idea of mine -- until Leigh pointed out that this idea was so old, it had been used in Martin Kane, Private Eye, which is billed as the very first television detective show. Martin Kane (played by William Gargan --seen in the photo, left. Gargan was the first of three actors to play the roll).

In the show, Kane smoked a pipe, and each episode featured a trip to the detective's tobacconist, where Kane would review the case -- and discuss tobacco with the store's proprietor -- because the show was sponsored by the U.S. Tobacco company. These tobacco shop trips were actually an early form of product-placement advertisement.

I'm disappointed to add another entry to my "nothing new under the sun" file, but wasn't really too surprised. I've noticed that (particularly in the past) an inordinate number of fictional detectives seem to smoke.

I suspect part of the reason is that smoking makes what actors call "good stage business." In other words, it gives characters something to do with their hands. Additionally, a writer can use details concerning someone's smoking to highlight character traits. What is the difference, for instance, between a man who uses a set of gold snippers to clip the end off his cigar, then lights it with a solid gold lighter -- compared with -- a man who bites the end off his cigar, spits it out, then lights up with a battered Zippo. What if he lights it with a match that he strikes on his thumbnail? Or, on the heel of his work boot?

Would a woman's character change, in your mind, if instead of smoking a cigarette, she smoked a cigar? What if she were the one biting the end off, and striking the match on her work boot?

I suspect that the nature of the characters described above shifts subtly as you go through the two paragraphs. Did you wonder, for instance, if the cigar smoking woman in work boots was a contemporary feminist, or did you perhaps jump to the idea that she inhabits a WWII setting and works as a "Rosie the Riveter?"

It may interest you to know, incidentally, that in my part-time occupation as a fill-in body at the cigar store near my house, I've become acquainted with several women who smoke cigars, and one or two who smoke pipes.

I freely admit that:
(A) Other props used by characters can reveal the same or similar character traits.
(B) Smoking is bad for you.

On the other hand, when someone smokes in a novel or film, particularly a contemporary one, I think that reveals an aspect of his/her character.

Smoking and detectives have traveled around in the same circles since long before the old pulp days. In fact, if you think about it,: Sherlock Holmes smoked pipes -- and cigars, if I recall correctly.

Can you imagine Marlowe without at least an occasional smoke in his hand? Would it change how you perceived his character, or even subtly alter the tone of the enttire work? I think it would, but you're free to disagree with me. In fact, that's what we've got the comments section below for. So -- feel free to blast away! (Assuming we've worked out the bugs.) You won't hurt my feelings; I've been called reams of unprintable names by army sergeants screaming at the tops of their lungs, and learned to let it roll off my back a long time ago.

What about Peter Falk's character in the TV show Columbo? Can you envision Lt. Columbo without his trademark cigar stump (it seemed almost never to be lit)? Admittedly, he would still have that car and trench coat, the ruffled hair, and sometimes that basset hound. But, can you see him holding up a gnarled hand to say, "Just one more question, sir," without a cigar stump parked between two of his fingers?

And, as long as we're covering television detectives, we might as well cover the other side of the balance sheet too.

Telly Savalas smoked cigarettes through much of the first season of Kojak. But, the writers changed that -- supposedly in response to non-smoking pressure from the public -- by creating a scene in which a meter maid chewed him out for smoking all the time. She handed him a Tootsie Pop to chew on, instead. And, the rest (as they say) is TV history.

The trend of connecting tobacco to fictional detectives has been changing for a long time, and continues to be in flux today. I'm not the kind of guy who advocates that anyone take up smoking anything (unless we're talking about somebody who walks into the cigar store while I'm working). But, it seems to me that smoking has its uses, when it comes to detective fiction -- if for no other reason than to demonstrate who the bad guy is.

What do you think?


  1. Interesting column, Dixon. My favorite uncle was like Columbo, always had an unlit cigar stub in his hand. My younger son used to hang out in a cigar store and play darts.

  2. Loved your "what ifs" about women characters. But what I wanna know is whether, in real life, you smoke those 10 to 15 cigars alone, in the bosom of the family, or in public? That's a character indicator too. ;)

  3. I've never been one of those guys who walks around blowing smoke in other people's faces; that's just not my style.

    Most of my cigar "socializing" takes place at the local cigar store. I usually have a cigar poking out of my face when I'm writing (another solitary activity).

  4. Poker Alice up in Deadwood, SD had a photo taken of her with a cigar in her mouth. She ran a gambling hall and brothel during the 1870's and people didn't mess with her....more than once. Good column.

  5. My first thought was Nero Wolfe's nemesis, Inspector Cramer, who always had a cigar in his hands but never lit one.

    COngress (or the CRS) is silent on Dr. Freud but I found a good webpage that discusses the quotation and concludes that it is apocryphal. (Earliest citation is 11 years after Freud died.) http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/08/12/just-a-cigar/

    The concept of "business" is an interesting one. I have written before that my characters tend to frown, shrug, and sigh when they need to do something between lines of dialog. THis is so true that I do automatic searches for those words when I am editing, and usually eliminate some of them.

  6. Forgot to say... you talk about being a "fill-in body' at the cigar shop and I immediately pictured you with an Indian headdress and a handfull of cigars.

  7. Rob, I too find that my characters often do too much shrugging, blinking, and sighing. Sigh.

    Interesting column!

  8. Thanks for the fact-check, Rob. And, I'm in full agreement on the shrugging, blinking, etc.

  9. I found a pic of Poker Alice online, RT, at: http://www.frontiergamblers.com/attachments/Image/PokerAlice.jpg

    That's quite an expression on her face. Is that the same Deadwood they made the HBO (I think it was) series about? Never saw it, but a lot of my buddies really liked it.

  10. What I can't figure out is how Rob knew how I dress when I work at the cigar store.

  11. My eyes are watering, but it's a damn fine article!

    When I first learned you worked in a cigar store, I thought of Martin Kane and Happy McMann's tobacco shop. I liked those stories.

  12. Thanks for the tip, Leigh. And for the Sanbox, guys; it really helped. I hope my cigar smoke wasn't what made your eyes water, Leigh.

  13. I’ve noticed that hardly any characters in TV, movies, short stories, or novels smoke cigars, cigarettes, or pipes anymore. I think to indicate a character’s personality these days you have to use Rob’s frown, shrug, and sigh. Nicknames might do the trick, such as C-Dog (tough and mean), Sweet Pea (probably gay).

  14. The best part is that Dixon doesn't take things too seriously

  15. I like that nickname idea, Louis (though, to me, "Sweet Pea" might also indicate a big guy with a high voice, similar to Mike Tyson--sort of the "Baby Huey" idea where the nickname is the antithesis of the character).

    But--What about the way a character adjusts his glasses, or picks something up? Seems to me, props help flesh out those frowns & shrugs, as well as grounding the scene in "reality" sometimes (gesturing w/ a beer mug during a bar scene, for instance).

    Do you guys (Rob, John, Louis, etc.) simply include that stuff in the frown/shrug/sigh category? Or do you think too many props get in the way? And that question's open to anybody--whether you're a regular poster, or first time visitor. What do you think about the use of props in scene dialogue -- either when reading it, or in your own writing?

    Inquiring minds want to know. ;-)

    (That wink -- ;-) -- didn't come out very well. But, that wink's for you, Velma!

  16. I suppose TOO many of those action props could get it the way, but I think they're really useful in--as you said--"grounding" the reader in the scene. And they also provide a good way for the writer to vary the rhythm of the dialogue, and not have to use so many dialogue tags.

  17. Gotta agree with ya', John. I was sitting here nodding my head as I read your comment -- particularly concerning the use of props to help avoid an over-abundance of dialogue tags. I hadn't even thought of mentioning that, but it's SO true!

  18. RT, my family had some of the most ghastly dinner conversations and that may have led to a certain compartmentalization.

    Dixon, thinking about John's comment, I also use frown and smile, but anything that moves the story forward helps the story. For example:

    "That's a lovely pearl choker" he said, cleaning his nails with a switchblade.

    If the story's going where we expect it to go, that prop moves the story forward.

  19. Your comment makes the perfect end-cap for the post, Leigh! Thanks.


  20. Dixon, I've just today managed to sign onto this site and so this very belated greeting. I, too, am an occasional cigar smoker, but we share more than this--I was also a 96B in the army, which I believe you mentioned as having been one of your MOS's in your first post. Couple that with our shared writing efforts and you have a very small world. I've enjoyed your articles and look forward to more.

  21. Bleated "Welocme!" to your belated greeting. Glad you stuck to it, and managed to get the comments part of the blog to work for you. I admire your persistence.

    A 96B! That's an "All Source," if I recall correctly. Am I on target, David?

    I was actually a 98C (AE). If you ever worked with a CEWI Bn, I think you'll know what that means. If not, we'll have to share cigars & swap stories when we get a chance to meet up sometime.


  22. I believe that became the calling card after my time. In any event, I spent a lot of time with tactical maps, radios and Soviet Battle Order templates--anything but glamorous, I'm afraid. I do recall the CEWI Bns but I never served with one. I worked with the HQ 3rd Bde 82nd Abn and later, in Germany, with the 8th Inf DivArty. Had a great time in Europe. I look forward to that cigar, Dix.

  23. So do I, David (Dave??). Always enjoy swapping war stories with an old member of the "82nd Airplane Gang." Closest I came to 82nd membership was a TDY at the SRF on Bragg, w/ the 311th MI Bn (82nd ABN). Spent my CEWI time @ the 101st (Dope on a Rope), and met my wife there (she worked at Div G2).

  24. Everywhere it says Kojak quit smoking for lollipops at the request of a meter maid but I've gone through the first season's episodes (on IMDB - 1973 season) and see no such scene!


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