The Wrong Case by James Crumley

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Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies

First published in 1975 – the year the NLF took Saigon and expelled the US from Vietnam – The Wrong Case is deservedly, though posthumously, reissued. It was James Crumley’s second novel (his first, One To Count Cadence, was Vietnam-oriented), introducing the downbeat hero-narrator Milo Milodragovich. Its setting is urban noir territory, a threatening environment, above all after dark. ‘The streets emptied at night. Except for Indians, freaks and winos.’

Crumley knows how to suggest a microcosm in two sentences. The place is Meriwether, an ironically named Montana town undergoing a mid-1970s transition to city that includes an expanding hard drugs trade and associated problems.  Social change is the engine of crime. As it melts the bonds of community and pushes the vulnerable to the margins the law is stretched and the private investigator  becomes the last resort of the helpless.

Raymond Chandler’s exemplary PI hero, Phillip Marlowe, will not accept divorce work, nurses a principled dislike of the rich and is coyly unnerved by overtly sensual women. As Chandler writes, he is ‘neither tarnished nor afraid’; in other words, he cannot be bribed or intimidated, he is the protestant conscience incarnate whose sense of honour keeps him poor. Milo might have been conceived precisely as an anti-Marlowe: casually on the take when a sheriff’s deputy, then a cynical mercenary lawyer specialising in divorce, finally – as marital law reform strangles his income – a bottom-feeding private eye. He consumes plenty of alcohol, dope and speed (personally I like that in a fictional detective). His offer to an attractive woman client asking his fee for finding her brother is ‘my days for your nights’. He freely accepts sex from a teenage drifter so zonked she admits ‘I don’t even remember this morning’. You wouldn’t take him home to Mother.

What Milo has that Marlowe in his isolated purity has not are friends.  For the most part a small circle of alcoholics and lost souls, the walking wounded of civic and family breakdown, they supply the human factor in a hostile world. When Simon, a burnt-out attorney and homeless town drunk, is murdered, Milo takes it personally. He takes personally in another sense his relationship with the beautiful client who initially rejects his days-for-nights proposition. And he carelessly takes as routine legwork to be farmed out for profit his agreement with the pathetic, mobbed-up nominal owner of the Riverfront Motor Inn. These plot vectors are further entangled with the intermittent popping-up of Jamison, a disapproving cop, and a moral panic over rising heroin use. That’s trouble enough for anyone, double trouble for a PI who lurches towards a solution through a punishing blitz of liquor, substance abuse and violent personal assault.

The plot is loosely tied, not remotely compact, and the overflow of emergencies that drives it identifies The Wrong Case as a crime story in which the whodunit element is secondary to ulterior concerns which remain to feed the narrative even after a multiple murderer has been nailed. Passages that might seem digressive can harbour a pointed relevance. In chapter fifteen Milo dwells on the much-recounted history of his own family, especially the grandiloquent yarn of how his great-grandfather won renown and founded the family’s wealth by shooting a famed desperado, Dalton Kimbrough. It’s a mythic ‘tall tale’ of the Wild West, garlanded with exaggerations and lies, heroising a banal and squalid, though suitably fatal, incident. Meriwether has not given up on such beguiling folklore; its citizens still invest in flattering misconceptions, deluded hopes. Readers may be reminded of the capstone quote from John Ford’s Western masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend’.

The reader sees what Milo sees, a view with its own distortions, and few emerging truths offer comfort as they demolish false appearances to undermine addictive dreams and fantasies. When there’s action on the ground the substantial energy of Crumley’s language as he works a genuinely ‘hard-boiled’ pulp-ish style, candid and impolite, can hit you like a slap when an ugly reality bites. ‘At two feet, even half blind and whipped senseless, I couldn’t miss. I blew his face off.’ Then an absurdist note is struck as wild, misdirected gunfire smashes a department store window: ‘within seconds, winos and freaks were fleeing down the street with the display clothing and furniture, two wildly ambitious drunks staggering off with a wicker couch.’

Milo has a great deal to digest emotionally from the experience of a ‘wrong case’, and his repressed anger ignites when he is patronised by an urbane Mafia mouthpiece who wants to pay him off. Explaining that ‘I hate arrogant assholes’, he cuts the dialogue short: ‘I swung him around like a ball on a string… slamming the guy into the jukebox, which went silent with a long scratchy burr… then ran him at the shuffleboard machine… his head banged into the plastic cover, then buried among the pins with a fine crash.’

Beating up a white-collar functionary won’t mend much. Milo knows the mob will take over and continue to market smack; that the anarchy of the modern city will never stop; and that he will always need his ‘substitute gratifications’ to survive and keep going. But expressive violence as always is ‘as American as cherry pie’; in over forty years since the original publication that hasn’t changed. Though never among the biggest-selling, Crumley is a vital and distinctive voice among the leading ranks of US crime authors, giving a strong individual touch to classical noir themes, picking his way among the corruption, greed, betrayal and homicidal aggression that fester beneath the deceitfully soothing proclamations of American optimism. Read The Wrong Case and if you like it both intelligent and down-and-dirty you will want to read more of him.

The book’s epigraph, ascribed here to Ross Macdonald’s Marlowe-equivalent Lew Archer, but usually credited to Nelson Algren (and also available in a gender-neutral version), is ‘Never go to bed with a woman who has more troubles than you do.’ How you can know beforehand….

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

James Crumley, The Wrong Case (Black Swan, 2016) 978-1784161941, 362pp., paperback.

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