James Crumley is basically the Raymond Chandler of the American west. I mean that as both a compliment and a dig.
I like Chandler and appreciate his status as the OG of the contemporary American mystery novel but I wouldn’t say I’m one of his acolytes. His plots were often heavily convoluted and though I don’t like applying 2018 sensibilities to works published sixty-plus years before, the vast majority of his female characters and how they are treated by Marlowe is nothing shy of misogynistic. Nevertheless, the man had a gift for both dialogue and scenery. He created a Los Angeles I felt like I could walk through and had crisp, biting dialogue.
Crumley has these strengths and weaknesses as well. If Philip Marlowe was a Vietnam Vet from Montana and did a lot of cocaine, he would be CW Sughrue. There is even the sympathetic tendencies towards the lower middle class and the plight of the poor that Chandler expresses. Crumley is the closest thing to Chandler, for better or for worse.
In this one, it’s more for worse. The plot here is almost impossible to follow and while I enjoyed how it shook out in Dancing Bear, it just doesn’t make enough sense to justify the many emotional beats Crumley is trying to hit. This is supposed to be a missing persons story only it becomes a bigger tale about what drugs did to folks in Nam and what they’re doing here and how the government maybe is or isn’t involved. There’s just too many balls to juggle and, like Chandler, plotting has never been Crumley’s strong suit.
Also, I have a hard time thinking these beautiful women would fall head-over-heels for a washed junkie alcoholic but that’s just me.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of fun moments when the dialogue hums, when the locations are well-described, when the book is marching towards anything other than a shootout. Crumley’s characters often function best when they’re talking as if they’re seated on a barstool, killing time. There’s enough of that to not make this book a total disaster.
Also, Crumley is trying to transfer 70s sensibilities to a 90s atmosphere…and I don’t think he succeeds but he also doesn’t totally fail. He’s not exactly a fish-out-of-water; he grasps the reality of the changing times even if he’s not attuned to how they have changed.
Crumley is the Chandler of the Vietnam age. Use that on a book blurb if you want. I would tack on “for better and worse” at the end of it.