Recently delved into the full collection of ghost-and-such stories by E.F. Benson, said collection being called Night Terrors. E.F. Benson was an English writer, late 1800s-to-early-mid-1900s, who wrote all kinds of things, though he’s most known for his ghostly and spectral and other spine-tingling tales, which are, in the main, awfully fun to read (whether you do it at night or in the daytime – up to you). They follow along the time-period’s aesthetic (no modern slasher fair here friends), which I find myself enjoying muchly, especially in the last few years. There’s something so, oh, atmospheric, and the writing itself, always well-done. I’m not going to say every story here was to my taste, but there’s a lot of variety (vampires? Check. Ghosts of all kinds? Check. Giant worms? Check. And more!), and enough worthy chillers to balance out any less worthy. Do I like Mr. Benson’s work overall as well as M.R. James (the master of the time and genre)? Probably not, but I have been to Lamb House, where Benson lived in Rye, UK, so that’s something (admittedly, I visited cause Henry James himself lived there before E.F. Benson, but still). Not a ton of Cocktail Talking in the collection, but there was something delightful in the below quote, how one character manages to swipe a drink from another by saying “touch of liver.”
“I have felt most awfully down all day,” he said; “and just after receiving this splendid account from Daisy. I can’t think what is the matter.”
He poured himself out some whisky and soda as he spoke.
“Oh, touch of liver,” I said. “I shouldn’t drink that if I were you. Give it to me instead.”
I recently had another Graham Greene Cocktail Talk here on the Spiked Punch (that one was a Comedians Cocktail Talk), and when re-reading the book that that there post focused its light upon, I got the urge to re-read some other Greenes. Does that happen to you? You read or re-read a book by an author and then just get the urge to delve more deeply into said author? Well, it does to me! It’s a bit like when you have a delicious, say, whiskey drink, and then you’re like “well, that worked out nicely, how about another!” For another in our Greene reading situation, I grabbed one of the ‘entertainments’ as he called them, as opposed to his serious stuff I suppose, This Gun for Hire. Following along the paths of a not-so-nice hired gun and a nice aspiring actor (who happens to have a fiancé who is a police detective) whose paths cross after a political assassination, well, it moves fast, draws you in, and is, well, entertaining! And has the below fun quote about whiskey, and beer!
“Keep a bottle of whisky here, super?” the Chief Constable asked. “Do’us all good to ‘ave a drink. Had too much beer. It returns. Whisky’s better, but the wife doesn’t like the smell.”
I haven’t perused many pages written by Sax Rohmer, who was one of – if not the, at least for a moment or two – best-selling mystery/adventure/action writers of his early-to-mid last century timeframe. Like too many of his contemporaries, he was fairly awful or deplorable, or really, in how he depicted people not exactly like him (other races, other genders, pretty much anything he would have thought of as “other”), and it makes reading much of his work not something I want to delve into, when there are many other things to read! However, I did receive a copy of stories by him recently, called The Secret of Holm Peel, and Other Strange Stories, and felt I should give it a whirl, and can admit that in the main, not too bad a collection. More adventure than strange (though there’s a demonic presence or two), and covering the basis of last-century adventure stories: meaning, there’s a pirate story, a swashbuckling story (the difference between those two genres is there, my friends!), a haunted castle and a haunted cliff story, all that. And a WW II story, naturally, which is called “Brother Wing Commanders,” and which is really a bird story combined with a hospital story and a little romance! That’s where this Cocktail Talk is coming from, a quote which contains a whisky line I hope to remember to use in the future!
“Inquiry from Buckingham Palace yesterday – and the eats and drinks! Why, Charles will be fatter than Goering if he goes to it! Yes, thanks a lot, it would set me up . . . Please excuse me reminding you, but your whisky is too good to deserve drowning. That’s fine.” There was a breathless interval.
On a rainy days like today, and yesterday, and probably tomorrow, I start to think “wouldn’t it be nice if it was sunny and I was on a train riding through the English countryside, with curious and attractive small towns and verdant and buzzing fields and such passing by outside my window?” And then I go back to reading the excellent collection of Golden Age British train-fueled mystery short stories Blood on the Tracks, and start to think, “hmm, maybe I’m safer inside with the rain outside dampening murderous thoughts?” One of the British Library Crime Classics collections (a fine series edited by writer and editor Martin Edwards, and one which unearths many mystery and crime gems nearly lost to history, usually placing them alongside some better-known hits), Blood on the Tracks boasts 15 stories that all share a train connection, making it a top choice for railway enthusiasts as well as mystery hounds – and for those, like me, who fit both categories? It’s dreamy! Our particular Cocktail Talk here comes from a story by R. Austin Freeman, a writer from that late 1800s, early 1900s Golden Age of crime fiction, one I don’t know well, but look forward to reading more from (probably with the help of more British Library Crime Classics!). In it, there are diamonds, a nefarious deed, actual blood on the tracks, a doctor detective of note, and wonderful usage of the wonderful word, “jorum.”
“Have a biscuit?” said Hickler, as he placed a whisky-bottle on the table together with a couple of his best star-pattern tumblers and a siphon.
“Thanks, I think will,” said Brodski. “The railway journey and all this confounded tramping about, you know.”
“Yes,” agreed Silas. “Doesn’t do you good to start with an empty stomach. Hope you don’t mind oat-cakes; I see they’re the only biscuit I have.”
Brodski hastened to assure him that oat-cakes were his special and peculiar fancy; and in confirmation, having mixed himself a stiff jorum, he fell to upon the biscuits with evident gusto.
I wasn’t sure we’d have two An Old Man’s Love Cocktail Talks, as it’s a quicker read (especially in comparison with many Trollope gems). However, here we are! I had to feature the quote in Part I (read it, to find out why, and to find out more about the book, the last full novel written by the English great, and for even more, check out all the Trollope Cocktail Talks), and then when mulling things over, didn’t want to miss the below, either. In it, we learn our lead character has had drinking whiskey as a doctor’s recommendation – something that doesn’t happen enough today!
He had, indeed, felt but little his want of success in regard to money, but he had encountered failure in one or two other matters which had touched him nearly. In some things his life had been successful; but these were matters in which the world does not write down a man’s good luck as being generally conducive to his happiness. He had never had a headache, rarely a cold, and not a touch of the gout. One little finger had become crooked, and he was recommended to drink whisky, which he did willingly,—because it was cheap. He was now fifty, and as fit, bodily and mentally, for hard work as ever he had been.
First published in serial form in 1862/1863, No Name is not the book name (see what I did there!) that first pops up when one thinks of Mr. Wilkie Collins; instead, it’s The Moonstone, and then The Woman in White. Both of which have also had recent television adaptions. It makes some sense, too, especially as The Moonstone is in many ways arguably (gently, cause there is no need for a ruckus) the first, or one of the first, detective novels, kicking off a massive industry, and The Woman in White has a little of that action, too. However! Collins wrote many more novels, some good, some not as good, and strongly in the good column is No Name. It had been, maybe, twenty-odd years since I read this the first time, and on the second reading recently I was struck by just how good it is, and left wondering why more haven’t taken it up. It has, as you might expect, a fair dollop of Victorian melodramatics – meaning, lots of cliff’s edges or “oh that didn’t happen” ramped up moments, like a silent movie in a way, or like a fair amount of modern movies now that I think about it – and gets wordy at over 500 pages. But the story/stories of two sisters (Magdalen and Norah Vanstone) abandoned when their parents die, and left none of their inheritance due to the ridiculous legality of the times, and how they deal with it and the loss of standing and fortune (not to mention grief, degradation, all that) is done quite well, and gives us a heroine (Magdalen) that many readers at the time weren’t fond of, but which I quite liked in her “do whatever it takes” and “I’m not going to sit in a place others tell me to” attitude. It could, I think, also make a swell miniseries! Plus, it was Collins’ pal Charles Dickens favorite (of the Collins canon), and has a couple nearly Dickensian characters, including the rascally Captain Wragge, and his nemesis, the calculating Mrs. Lecount, who below gives us – along with cruel fool Noah Vanstone – our first of three Cocktail Talks from the book.
“The man has been drinking, sir,” said Mrs. Lecount. “It is easy to see and to smell that. But he is evidently used to drinking. If he is sober enough to walk quite straight–which he certainly does–and to sign his name in an excellent handwriting–which you may see for yourself on the Will–I venture to think he is sober enough to drive us to Dumfries.”
“Nothing of the sort! You’re a foreigner, Lecount; you don’t understand these people. They drink whisky from morning to night. Whisky is the strongest spirit that’s made; whisky is notorious for its effect on the brain. I tell you, I won’t run the risk. I never was driven, and I never will be driven, by anybody but a sober man.”
I hear you, don’t worry – it’s July, it’s summer, it’s hot, the sweat is pouring off your hard-working brow, the yard has yet to be mowed (again), the sun is so high and hot in the sky, a winter-ific, fall-tastic, chill-in-the-air idealistic, hearty, flavorful, Scotch whisky is perhaps the last slow sipper that comes to mind. But darn it, conventions are made to be chucked, and sometimes the last idea is the most needed, the best. Just like some days you realize that only a good whisky will balance out the hours. Lucky for me, I recently received not one, but two good ones in the mail (lovely mail!), and so quenched my summer Scotch thirst with Ardbeg Wee Beastie and Ardbeg Blaaack. And what lovely tipples they are!
Let’s start with Ardbeg Wee Beastie, a youthful number at just five years of age (“mellowed” as they say in ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks), but packing a walloping taste none-the-less, like a powerful toddler you won’t want to ignore. Especially if you like some smoke in your sip – that smokiness is a fine match for summer, too, if you think about all the flame-y cooking happening. But even though it’s young and bold, it’s smooth, too, starting with a peat-y, pepper-y, fire-y nose that ends sweet with a hint of citrus. That folds into a taste that’s smoky as well, especially at the tail, but with loads of spice, a little vanilla, and herbs intertwined. A few drops of water are a neat addition, bringing the smoke, vanilla, and citrus notes more into play.
Right along the heels (it’s a two-Scotch day after all!) is Ardbeg Blaaack, the limited-edition whisky released to celebrate and commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Ardbeg Committee. What is the Ardbeg Committee? It’s a sweet fan club, really, one that spreads the good Ardbeg word as well as getting some neat stuff, too. But back to the Blaaack! New Zealand Pinot Noir casks (first time Ardbeg’s used these for those counting) held the lush liquid. New Zealand and Scotland’s shared sheep-ness add the extra “baaa” to the name! But what about the taste? Glad you asked! The aroma has a distinctive berry-ness (summery!), light smoke, and hints of flowers and oak, flowing into a flavor that’s more berries, baked fruit, cherries, a bit of oak and nuttiness, followed by a little spice and more fruit. Yummy. Add a little water here, and the cherry notes are unleashed even more, with an echo of citrus along for the ride.
And now you have two great reasons for believing me that whisky can be just the ticket, even in the height of summer.
When you’re sorta, oh, staying at home for an extended period as some are at the moment, it’s good to have a big, big book (or many). If you’re looking for a good big, big book, may I suggest what I’m reading, The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries? Cause it is very big (700 plus pages in the version I have), and very good (I mean, it features tons of heavy-hitters covering many genres), and very holiday-y, which brings a nice feeling these days. Christmas and winter holidays are mystery-story hotspots, if you didn’t know, probably due to balancing the cheer out with murder. That’s a guess, but I’m just happy there are so many good stories here! Including one by Robert Barnard called Boxing Unclever. I have to admit, I didn’t know Mr. Barnard well before this story (I know, I probably should!), but one of the fun things about a big anthology like this is discovering the writers new to you, alongside your favorites. And this story is an intriguing one, a story within a story, and one with some nice – and murderous! – cocktail-talking, in the form of the below quote:
And so it was time for a second round of drinks. I decided on that as I saw toiling up the drive the figure of my dear old dresser, Jack Roden. My once dear old dresser. I poured out a variety of drinks including some already-mixed cocktails, two kinds of sherry, some gins and tonic, and two glasses of neat whisky. There was only one person in the room with the appalling taste to drink neat whisky before luncheon. Pouring two glasses gave that person a fifty-fifty chance of survival. Depending on how the tray was presented. With my back to the guests I dropped the hyoscine into one of the whisky glasses.
The Man Behind the Evening's PlansA.J. Rathbun is a freelance food and entertainment writer, poet and author, a frequent guest on the Everyday Food program (Martha Stewart Living/Sirius satellite radio), and is a contributor to culinary & entertainment magazines such as Every Day with Rachael Ray, The Food Network Magazine, Real Simple, Wine Enthusiast, and many others. Of course, there's so much more to it than that...Read More