(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

James Crumley did not begin his career as a detective novelist. However, many of the elements that define his detective novels are present in his first novel, One to Count Cadence: elevated violence, a countercultural perspective, and rebellious characters who refuse to conform to the mainstream. Crumley’s main inspiration and primary literary antecedent, as Crumley often states, is Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler, Crumley is a high stylist, who always writes in the first person and relishes the well-turned phrase, particularly apt description, and judicious use of original similes. Just as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is a lone private investigator who works outside the official channels of law enforcement, Crumley’s Milo and Sughrue are characters at odds with the authorities, whether they are corrupt police departments or government agencies. Like Marlowe, Sughrue and Milo make up in persistence, endurance, and toughness what they lack in Sherlock Holmesian levels of intellect.

As great as Crumley’s debt is to Chandler, however, the plots of his novels follow directions that may have been unimaginable to Chandler. Members of the generation of baby boomers who came of age in the 1960’s, Milo and Sughrue are familiar with the counterculture and its politics, with drug users and dealers, the sexual revolution, gay rights, and feminism. Crumley’s detectives are more familiar with the down-and-out people in their society than they are with the respectable elements. Their friends are drunks, drug dealers, burned-out veterans, and bartenders. Both detectives drink too much and are willing to snort both cocaine and methamphetamine. Crumley’s detectives rarely find themselves at odds with everyday criminals. In the latter novels, particularly, Sughrue and Milo tend to engage in conflicts with corrupt senators, billionaires, corporations, and upper echelon Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents.

The private-eye characters, the first-person, wisecracking narrative, the pacing, and the violence in Crumley’s novels clearly place them within the hard-boiled category of detective fiction. However, violence in Crumley’s novels—particularly the latter ones—tends to be simultaneously more extreme and more complicated than in earlier hard-boiled novels. In Dancing Bear, Milo shoots more men during the climactic showdown than Philip Marlowe does in his entire series; on the other hand, the violent death of a friend and drunk in The Wrong Case sends Milo on an alcohol and cocaine bender that almost kills him.

Crumley’s novels also differ from those of other hard-boiled detective writers because they are not essentially urban tales. Although parts of the novels are set in the small town of Meriwether, Montana, and other small cities, the narratives are largely set in the open West, from Montana in the north to Texas in the south. Crumley’s detectives do not lose tails by dodging in and out of taxis or subway cars but by following National Forest Service maps onto logging roads. The corruption of humankind and civilization is made even starker when juxtaposed with the mountain forests of Dancing Bear and the desert Southwest of The Mexican Tree Duck and Bordersnakes.

The Wrong Case

The Wrong Case, Crumley’s first detective novel, introduces Milton “Milo” Milodragovitch. The great-grandson of a Russian Cossack émigré to the old west, Milo is a thirty-nine-year-old private investigator, a Korean War veteran (having enlisted at the age of sixteen), and a former corrupt deputy sheriff whose business has dried up because of the relaxing of Montana divorce laws. Milo’s father, while wealthy, had become a drunk and a philanderer in the years before his suicide; Milo’s mother (also an alcoholic and, eventually, also a suicide) placed the family fortune into a trust that Milo will not inherit until he turns fifty-three. Milo’s life is further complicated in that his oldest...

(The entire section is 1653 words.)