Sunday, June 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #175: The Wrong Case by James Crumley

Private eye novels were traditionally about men with something wrong -- whether it was the vague white-knightism of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer's detached voyeurism. Eventually, the field opened to women -- Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshawski and their sisters -- who were just as damaged in their own ways. And, maybe, eventually, there was even room for some relatively normal men and women along the way.

Anything's possible, I suppose.

But here were are back in the old PI tradition, in James Crumley's first mystery novel, The Wrong Case, from 1975. And his Milton Chester Milodragovitch (the Third) is a detective in the old tradition: drunk, tired, and not a bit better than he should be. We meet him in the small city of Meriwether, somewhere unspecified in the Pacific Northwest but probably out in the Eastern end of Washington or Oregon -- far from the coast, closer to logging and hunting and fishing and the mountains. Milo was a specialist in divorce proceedings, tracking wayward spouses and getting proof of their sordid affairs, but his state has just enacted no-fault divorce and destroyed his entire business: no one needs proof of adultery to get divorced anymore.

Milo is also the latest in a line of once-prominent men in town: his great-grandfather parlayed an encounter with a local outlaw into a long and successful law-enforcement career, and the line has been dwindling into obscurity and alcoholism since then. Milo's father died drunk, leaving Milo a sizable inheritance that he'll only get at age fifty-two -- still more than a decade away. So Milo is trying to live on what he has -- and support two ex-wives, since he's never been known for making good decisions -- until the big money comes in and he can enjoy life. At this point, he still thinks the money will let him enjoy life; that will change.

This was the first novel about Milo; he turned into something like a series hero -- not so much hero, and not all that much series, either -- over the years, as Crumley returned to him now and then. The second book was Dancing Bear, almost a decade later; I looked at that when I thought I could get through one Vintage Contemporary a month and read them all by now. (We all think we can do things that turn out to be impossible -- it's one of the things I share with Milo.)

But here Milo was as much of a private detective as he ever was: hired by a woman to investigate her missing brother and soon churning the underbelly of Meriwether, in these just-past-Vietnam years of freaks and drop-outs and druggies. He was never one of the more organized PIs, but he did actually go around to talk to people and learn things in this book -- it didn't work out all that well, but that's Crumley's world. Nothing ever works out all that well. Nothing can.

This is a fine detective novel in the old tradition, about men and the stupid things they do and the women who come into their world. Crumley's women are more rounded and real than the standard for the genre and the time, but they do have their cliches, and they're seen entirely from outside -- by men who never have understood women, and never will. I'm glad I read it again, now that I'm older than Milo, and have a better acquaintance with failure and regret: this is the kind of book that rewards that kind of experience.

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