Chances are they exist in the real world, but good luck finding sober private eyes in crime fiction. From Philip Marlowe to Hoke Moseley, the detectives and dicks of this genre like their booze, and for good reason: a right madness comes in handy when solving crimes. It’s especially helpful in Meriwether, the fictional Montana town where James Crumley’s hero C.W. Sughrue has set up shop.
As Crumley’s latest installment in this series opens, Sughrue passes up the opportunity to move to Minneapolis with his improbably good-looking and good-natured wife Whitney. Instead, he wheels his stitched-up bones to a bar where he can ogle women “sharper than the popper on a blacksnake whip” and drink on his friend Mac’s tab. The downside to this activity is that it leads to him taking yet one more assignment from Mac, a psychiatrist who’s had the files of seven long-term patients lifted from his office. Mac wants to figure out who has them and why.
If Sughrue thinks this is going to be another easy surveillance job, he has another thing coming. Not long after he signs up, bodies begin falling from the sky. Victim number one is the wife of a rich college professor who has her head popped off like the cap of a Budweiser. The second unlucky soul has an unfortunate date with gravity. Number three slices off her hand with a band saw, and number four turns up pummeled to death on an office couch. Before long, Sughrue—who saw his share of death and destruction in Vietnam—is back on the American Spirits. And then worse.
Unlike many of today’s crime writers, wedded to their research and well-documented auras of realism, Crumley understands that a lot of exaggeration goes a long way when you want to capture the essence of a place. It’s not just the crimes in this book that are outsized; everything is. Every woman Sughrue encounters is a goddess, every moonscape a Dali painting. From the very first page, Crumley’s prose rushes like spilt martini on a lacquered bar top:
“The early August afternoon had been hot as a fiddler’s bitch, and a molten slice of sunset still glowed with a hot golden flame along the jagged edge of the western horizon, but the early evening air had cooled quickly enough to draw vaporous swirls of steam from the heated water. The rising moon seemed to muffle the night for a moment.”
When he’s not slobbering a little too hard on his instrument like this, Crumley hits some good notes. A policeman hates Sughrue “worse than crotch rot,” while a man who’s just suffered a stab wound with a pen (and then had it cleaned out with vodka) will find his arm “sore as a boil” for a few days. Some people prepare for a night of work with a Venti Starbucks latte. For Sughrue, it’s “a bottle of Lagavulin and a six-pack of PBR.” When he’s about to start whipping some butt, he drawls: “You might as well call the ambulance now, ’cause I’m gonna kill the big one first.” You gotta hand it to him, he doesn’t mess around.
Slowly but surely, Sughrue goes to work—but not without a certain reassuring pattern. Every night he bellies up to a bar to listen, eavesdrop, or simply scope things out, and every morning he wakes up with a hangover not even a brisk ferry crossing in a high gale can clear. When he needs to think, he retires to his office, turns on an old movie and thumbs hunks of deer sausage and cheese off blocks with a dirty knife. A scene early in the novel describes him as resembling an aging surfer, but somehow this diet suggests something closer to Charles Bukowski.
There really is no point to all this dishevelment, but it does highlight the fact that we believe in crime fiction because it allows us to bet on the underdog. Even when he’s matched up against a shadowy killer, some FBI agents who want to molest his friend’s wife and the sudden disappearance (and seeming death) of Mac himself, we get the sense that Sughrue will stay on the case.
And so, no matter how far down he gets, or how wired on cocaine, we know Sughrue will maintain his instincts. In The Mexican Tree Duck he was left for dead, and he nearly lost his life several times in Bordersnakes. That’s nothing compared to the bizarre foes—both internal and external—he runs up against here. All he needs is a piece, a Dopp Kitt with “some legal meds and some illegal,” and he’s ready for action at a good price. “I’m a private investigator,” he drawls early in the novel. “I leave the blackmail to the lawyers.” Indeed, $24.95 is a fair ransom for this one.
James Crumley will sign copies of The Right Madness at The Depot Thursday, May 12, at 7 PM.