Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Gimlet for Mr. Chandler

(Editor’s note: We first contacted Robert F. Moss last month, when we were prospecting for stories to help us celebrate the long-ago passing of detective novelist Raymond Chandler. The creator of The Raymond Chandler Web Site, Moss is also the author of an excellent non-fiction work, Raymond Chandler: A Literary Reference, published by Carroll & Graf in 2002. In the following essay, this resident of Charleston, South Carolina, manages to blend two of his principal writing interests--Chandler and the history of food and drink--which he explores on a regular basis in separate blogs, The Chandler Site and Al Forno Charleston.)

A few weeks ago, I commemorated the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler’s death by mixing myself a gimlet and reading passages from The Long Goodbye (1953).

It was a melancholy exercise. Chandler died of bronchial pneumonia at the Scripps Clinic in San Diego, California, on March 26, 1959. By all accounts, his last few years were ones of great sadness and confusion. His wife, Cissy, had passed away in 1954, just after Chandler completed The Long Goodbye, which many critics (myself included) consider his best novel. Without Cissy he was adrift. He resumed heavy drinking, and in February 1955 attempted suicide.

Chandler was more active socially during his last five years than he had been at any time since marrying Cissy. He split his time between La Jolla, California, and London, England. In England, he was treated like a literary celebrity and mixed with what he called “the St. John’s Wood-Chelsea literary-artistic crowd,” which included Natasha and Stephen Spender, J.B. Priestley, Ian Fleming, Dilys Powell, and Leonard Russell. But, he also suffered from depression and continued drinking, which alienated his new circle of literary friends and left him hospitalized on several occasions. He struggled to complete Playback, his final novel, saying “my heart was too sad to let me capture the mood and gusto and impudence which is essential” for a Philip Marlowe story. His finished that book in December 1957, and it was published the next summer, during the final year of his life.

Gimlets are the appropriate drink for remembering Chandler, and a treat to enjoy during the coming warmer months. In The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe and a dissipated playboy named Terry Lennox create an uneasy bond over gimlets at Victor’s bar. The gimlets Lennox and Marlowe drank weren’t the real thing, as Lennox himself points out:
We sat in the corner bar at Victor’s and drank gimlets. “They don’t know how to make them here,” he said. “What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.”
Marlowe and Lennox’s brief friendship is founded on the recognition that they share a personal code of behavior in a world that has lost its moral standards. For a few months, they meet regularly at 5 p.m. for drinks. Then, one morning at 5 o’clock, Lennox shows up at Marlowe’s doorstep, holding a gun. Marlowe asks no questions and drives him to Tijuana. Later, after learning that Lennox has committed suicide in a Mexican hotel room, Marlowe receives a letter that Lennox mailed just before his death, containing a veiled confession to murdering his wife, a $5,000 bill, and a request to “drink a gimlet for me at Victor’s.”

Gimlets weren’t in the first draft of The Long Goodbye. In 1952, as Chandler was revising the novel to prepare it for publication, he and Cissy took a monthlong trip to London. He discovered gimlets on their return voyage aboard the RMS Mauretania. He liked them so much that he worked them into the final version of the novel.

Chandler’s formula of 1/2 gin and 1/2 Rose’s seems pretty steep, since a gimlet is basically a martini with Rose’s Lime Juice rather than vermouth. The 1954 Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts, published in London the year after The Long Goodbye, cites the Savoy Hotel’s recipe of 3 parts gin to 1 part Rose’s. Esquire also notes, “A true Gimlet must be made with Rose’s bottled lime juice, which vanished like nylons during the war but is now seen around again.”

Many recipes today still call for lime juice mixed with powdered sugar, and some call for lemon juice, but these are poor substitutes for Rose’s Lime Juice, which has a pale yellow color and sweet, candy-like taste that is hard to duplicate. Lauchlin Rose, an Edinburgh shipping provisioner, formulated the original lime-and-sugar syrup in the 1860s to preserve limes for British sailors, who were required by law to take a daily dose of lime juice to prevent scurvy. Rose’s invention was a nonalcoholic alternative to the older method of preserving limes in Demerara rum, which prevented scurvy just fine but led to tipsy sailors falling out of the riggings. Ironically, the general public found Rose’s Lime Juice to be splendid when mixed with gin, and today it’s a bar staple.

The origin of the gimlet itself is less certain, but it became popular in Hong Kong and other tropical British colonies around the time of World War I, and it took hold in London during the 1920s and ’30s. When Chandler discovered it on the Mauretania, it was just re-emerging from its war-enforced obscurity because of the unavailability of Rose’s Lime Juice.

For Chandler fans, gimlets will always be a sentimental drink, conjuring up a sense of melancholy and loss. They are best drunk in a cold, dark bar while it’s hot outside, re-creating Marlowe’s moments of cool reflection amid the sun-blind heat of a Los Angeles summer. The gimlet’s flavors are an appropriate combination for Chandler, whose writing and personality could be simultaneously sour and syrupy sweet. That combination is reflected in Marlowe’s relationship with Terry Lennox, too.

It takes the private eye a little while, in The Long Goodbye, to get back down to Victor’s and fulfill Lennox’s request to “drink a gimlet for me.” When he does, he finds that the barman has ordered a bottle of Rose’s Lime Juice and can now make those drinks the proper way with no bitters. “With the lime juice it has a sort of pale greenish yellowish misty look,” Marlowe notes. “It was both sweet and sharp at the same time.” He meets heiress Linda Loring in Victor’s that afternoon, beginning an on-again, off-again relationship that’s continued in Playback and would lead to a few chapters of a novel fragment called The Poodle Springs Story (later completed by Robert B. Parker as simply Poodle Springs) in which Marlowe and Loring get married. Marlowe has one more run-in with gimlets and the memory of Terry Lennox before the tale is played out ... but there’s no need to spoil the novel’s ending.

In the letter to his agent that accompanied the manuscript of The Long Goodbye, Chandler wrote, “I didn’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I cared about the people, about this strange corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or just plain foolish.” Chandler himself was quite sentimental and even foolish in the last years of his life, but in his writing he remained honest to the end.

During his lifetime Raymond Chandler was never secure in his achievements, and he was plagued by the suspicion that he had wasted his talents in a subliterary genre. Fifty years later, both literary scholars and the public at large have put such concerns to rest. His best books--The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye--are on the short list of the greatest American novels ever written. Through the character of Philip Marlowe and through his contributions to film noir, Chandler has made a lasting imprint on American popular culture, and he remains the most vivid chronicler of Southern Californian life between 1930 and 1960. The gimlets we drink in his memory may be potent and a little sour, but they are also very sweet. And what could be a more fitting way to remember a great American writer?

READ MORE:Writing The Long Goodbye,” by Mark Coggins; “Detectives & Their Drinks: Cocktail Recipies & Thin Man Martini,” by Janet Rudolph (Mystery Fanfare).


Jack Getze said...

That was fun, thanks. I'm going to go make a proper gimlet.

Corey Wilde said...

Can't recall the last time I had a gimlet, probably because I didn't stop at one. I think it's time I renewed my acquaintance.

Elisabeth said...

Perfect. Like Chandler--sweet, sour, and melancholic. But beware of US-made Rose's Lime Juice; it's made with high fructose corn syrup (with its accompanying icky mouth feel and aftertaste). To create a gimlet that Chandler and Marlowe would recognize buy (or order online) Rose's Lime Cordial from Canada where it is still made with sugar. Yes, perfect on a hot day. Didn't Chandler drink stingers before embarking on finishing The Blue Dahlia? He seems to have liked sweet cocktails.

Z Farls said...

Im 22 but ordered one at a maine bar and my gf's dad was like "my mother drinks those (80)"

I love rosies lime juice and you can make them strong which is why it rules. I used to go with vodka but now will stick with Gin out of respect

Cladrite Radio said...

Thanks to Raymond Chandler, gimlets have been my preferred cocktail since I first began imbibing nearly forty years ago. I prefer mine be made with tequila, but would happily accept one made with vodka or gin, especially when toasting Chandler's memory.