…there may be other cocktails in the world but “they are mostly useful for furniture polish.”
2/3 DRY GIN (must be Gordon’s or Booth’s High and Dry)
1/3 NOILLY PRAT VERMOUTH (from a freshly opened bottle)
“Use plenty of ice, shake like hell and serve foaming in a fair sized glass. A small strip of lemon rind cut very thin might be allowed, but nothing else. No dividends.”
-from So Red the Nose
Oppenheim. Honey. That drink you’re calling The Man without Nerves? I hate to break it to you, but it’s a martini. Not even an original “twist” on the martini concept, like we’ve seen a twist on the Singapore gin sling or the whisky sour. It’s just a straight up martini, right down to the ice in the shaker and the lemon rind garnish. You may have been a great genre writer in your time, but I don’t know where you got off submitting the world’s most famous cocktail to So Red the Nose as your own creation.
Well, if you’re ballsy enough to claim a ~60-year-old cocktail, then I guess I’ll be audacious enough to review a ~140-year-old one. And, in fact, as yours is my very first martini, I’m actually the perfect person to write an unbiased profile of the old classic.
My off-the-cuff reaction: Martinis are amaaaazing! I was expecting this traditionally “manly” drink to be over-strong and bitter tasting, but the vermouth and gin actually balance each other out perfectly. It also goes down incredibly smoothly, with no hard-liquor-induced choking involved.
Oppenheim doesn’t specify whether the Noilly Prat should be sweet or dry, so I highly recommend that fellow first-timers go with the sweet. It offsets the strength of the gin by sheer force of deliciousness.
I do have one caveat about this drink though, or at least with drinking it during a weeknight while trying to make your way through a crime novel. However, I’m bored with repeating myself about how strong these 1930’s drinks were, so I’ll just let American Dad (Hulu paywall — sorry!) do it for me. This episode perfectly encapsulates the risks of nostalgic drinking.
“A novel is like that. You have all the materials there chopped in pieces — men and women, events, passions, details, everything that counts, and there is someone that bids you put them together and mocks at you.”
– from The Man without Nerves
As I mentioned last week, British writer E. Phillip Oppenheim basically invented the modern spy novel, so it’s kind of a shame that the book he chose to represent his work is just another murder mystery. The Man without Nerves is not exactly a formulaic “whodunnit” though (who done did it is right there in the title, after all), but more of a “whydeoit,” “howdedoit,” and “whenarethegonnacatchhimalsohowdidhegetawaywithitforsolong-it.”
The story is a thriller built on several interlaced mysteries which are suddenly thrust on the sleepy English village of Sandywayes: three men committing shockingly unexpected suicides, three strangers with questionable backstories but no obvious connections simultaneously appearing in town, and large amounts of money quietly disappearing from the eponymous bank. Rather than methodically working through a list of suspects, Opphenheim is great at planting small details in each chapter to suggest that darker things are happening beneath Sandywayes’ placid surface, such as a stodgy old man carefully concealing a gun or a strange chauffeur standing in the middle of the road at two in the morning.
Unlike Van Dine, Oppenheim has a light touch, letting the story’s questions unfold slowly, rather than bashing us over the head with them through the means of an obnoxiously cocky detective and chirpy sidekick duo. In fact, there is no real sleuth in this story, and the police play a minor, if not useless, role. There’s not even really one main character, just a ensemble of confused townspeople trying to piece together what is happening in their normally peaceful home.
Oppenheim is our first –and, as far as I can tell, only — non-American writer from SRTN, which is a bit of a shame. I’m a sucker for British — well, British anything really — but especially British mysteries. This story hits me in the Agatha Christie sweet spot of fun, nostalgic, and cozy, while still being unpredictable and, at times, intense.
Forgotten classic or better left in the past?
The Man without Nerves was super easy to digest and a lot of fun if you like that sort of thing. Which I do, whole-heartedly. The characters were quite well drawn and believable, the plot was engaging and tightly written, and the ending was as happy as stories involving ruthless serial killers can hope be. The climatic scene was a little contrived, but, then, what did you expect in a book about a criminal mastermind pretending to be the town fuddyduddy for twenty years?
Like many genre writers past and present, Oppenheim wrote somewhere between 6 billion and infinity novels, including both spy and mystery thrillers. You may be able to take or leave him, but I am definitely adding his oeuvre to my comfort reading rotation.
The Man without Nerves, along with the rest of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s collection, is available on Kindle.
Next Time: We examine another female author, a poetess.
Won’t you join me, readers of this blog,
As she teaches us Frost, Sandburg, and other “contemporaneousness”
As well as a cocktail she shares in common with Snoop Dogg?