The Mexican Tree Duck

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

James Crumley’s first novel in a decade reintroduces C.W. Sughrue, the central character of THE LAST GOOD KISS (1978). Sughrue is a private detective operating out of Meriweather, Montana, and he’s one tough hombre. “‘Shoog’ as in sugar, honey,” he explains the pronunciation of his name upon meeting a young woman, “and ‘rue’ as in rue the goddamned day.” He has a sense of humor, too.

In THE MEXICAN TREE DUCK Sughrue takes on what seems to be a straightforward case: tracking down one Sarita Cisneros Pines, missing wife of the U.S. president’s special envoy to Mexico and—just perhaps—the natural mother of one of Sughrue’s drug-dealing buddies. But in Sughrue’s world nothing is that simple. Neither Mrs. Pines’s husband nor the FBI—which has taken a suspiciously intense interest in the case—welcomes Sughrue’s help. And at every step of the way Sughrue encounters heavily armed resistance, leading him to enlist his own band of old Vietnam buddies in what seems increasingly like a reprise of the former conflict.

Crumley’s novel defies any more coherent summary, and we reach the last page wondering whether we’ve been led on a wild goose chase. (Make that a wild duck chase.) But we read Crumley not for plot but for language and attitude. He writes with angry intensity, and handles his scenes of violence and mayhem as well as anyone who’s ever tackled the West. His characters move through a landscape of great natural beauty, but one corrupted by easy money and easy drugs and easy firepower, one in which the battles of Vietnam are forever being replayed. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s a memorable one.