Books Down and out of his mind

James Crumley's hard-living PI is back on the case ... and the coke

Chances are they exist in the real world, but good luck finding a sober private eye in crime fiction. From Philip Marlowe to Hoke Moseley the detectives and dicks of this genre like their booze, and for good reason. A right madness comes in handy when solving crimes. Even in Meriwether, the fictional Montana town where James Crumley's hero C.W. Sughrue has set up shop.

As Crumley's latest installment in this series opens, Sughrue passes up the opportunity to move to Minneapolis with his improbably good-looking and good-natured wife, Whitney. Instead, he wheels his stitched-up bones to a bar where he can ogle women "sharper than the popper on a blacksnake whip" and drink on his friend Mac's tab. The downside to this activity is that it leads to yet one more assignment from Mac, who had the files of seven long-term analysis patients lifted from his office. Mac wants to know who has them and why.

Naturally, not long after Sughrue signs up, bodies begin falling from the sky. Victim No. 1 is the wife of a rich college professor, who has her head popped off like a Budweiser cap. The second unlucky soul has a date with gravity. Number three slices off her hand with a band saw, and number four turns up pummeled to death on an office couch. Before long, Sughrue - who saw his share of death and destruction in Vietnam - is back on the American Spirits. And then worse.

Unlike many of today's crime writers, who are wedded to research and their well-documented aura of realism, Texas native Crumley understands that a lot of exaggeration goes a long way when you want to capture the essence of a place. It's not just the crimes in this book that are outsized; it's everything. Every woman Sughrue encounters is a goddess, every moonscape a Dali painting. From the opening line, Crumley's prose rushes across the page like spilt martini on a lacquered bar top:

"The early August afternoon had been hot as a fiddler's bitch, and a molten slice of sunset still glowed with a hot golden flame along the jagged edge of the western horizon, but the early evening air had cooled quickly enough to draw vaporous swirls of steam from the heated water. The rising moon seemed to muffle the night for a moment."

When he's not slobbering too hard on his instrument like this, Crumley composes some good notes. A policeman hates Sughrue "worse than crotch rot." Some people prepare for a night of work with a Venti Starbucks latte. For Sughrue, it's "a bottle of Lagavulin, and a six pack of PBR." When he's about to start whipping some butt, he drawls, "You might as well call the ambulance now, 'cause I'm gonna kill the big one first."

The Right Madness
By James Crumley
$24.95, 304 pages
ISBN: 0670034061
And so, slowly but surely, Sughrue goes to work - not without a certain reassuring pattern. Every night he bellies up to a bar to listen, eavesdrop, or simply scope things out, and every morning he wakes up with a hangover that not even a brisk ferry crossing in a high gale can clear. When he needs to think he retires to his office, turns on an old movie, and thumbs hunks of deer sausage and cheese with a dirty knife.

There really is no point to all this dishevelment, but it does highlight the fact that we relish crime fiction because it allows us to bet on the underdog. Even when he's matched up against a shadowy killer, FBI agents who want to molest his friend's wife, and the sudden disappearance (and apparent death) of Mac himself, we believe Sughrue will stay on the case. In The Right Madness, he gets some help from a tough and - you guessed it - beautiful Butte attorney named Claudia Lucchesi.

No matter how far down he gets, or how wired on cocaine, we know Sughrue will maintain his instincts. In The Mexican Tree Duck he was left for dead and he nearly lost his life several times in Bordersnakes. Those travails are nothing compared to the bizarre foes - internal and external - he runs up against here, but all he needs is a piece, a Dopp Kitt with "some legal meds and some illegal," and he's ready for action at a good price. "I'm a private investigator," he drawls early in the novel. "I leave the blackmail to the lawyers." Indeed, $24.95 is a fair ransom for this one.