California Literary Review

The Right Madness – by James Crumley

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April 24th, 2007 at 4:46 am

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The Right Madness
by James Crumley
Viking, 304 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

The Right Madness is Vintage Crumley

And me? Well, hell, I try to stay home more often playing with the cats and doing the scut work that comes my way – depositions, employee thefts, domestic disasters – but I don’t go hunting for lost people much anymore. The women tell me that after all these years I haven’t even found myself. Of course, I haven’t looked all that hard, yet.

If I happened to run across this paragraph scrawled on a soggy bar napkin at Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grill it would take less than a tenth-of-a-second to determine with absolute surety that the man who wrote those words was Missoula, Montana’s James Crumley. No one else tells the stories like Crumley, has his voice, his confidence or absolute fearlessness when it comes to putting down the wicked, horrible aspects of human existence, foibles of the worst sort only slightly tempered by our species’ better traits.

The Right Madness (The title of the novel is taken from the late Montana poet Richard Hugo’s collection of poetry, The Right Madness on Skye) is just one more book of the author’s that hammers and staggers down the road of specious excess and unavoidable truth. In fact, this one is so well done that parts of it remind me of a mystery he wrote years ago called The Last Good Kiss, an effort so overwhelmingly well-constructed that it is considered by many including myself to be one of the finest novels ever written regardless of genre. Crumley never spares the reader’s sensibilities or self-perceived decencies in his writing. For years he’s examined and revealed mankind’s shortcomings and, in rare moods of generosity, mankind’s altruistic qualities.

The hero, for lack of a better term, is C. W. Sughrue (“Shoog” as in sugar and ‘rue’ as in “rue the goddamned day”), an ex-army officer turned Montana private eye. He wants nothing more than to lie low and try to block out memories of his last case, the one that left a bullet wound in his gut and his marriage in shambles. The last thing he wants to do is take on any business from his best friend, Dr. Will MacKinderick, a wealthy psychiatrist in their small town and probably the only person Sughrue has faith in.

But MacKenderick is desperate. Convinced that one of seven patients is behind the theft of confidential psychoanalysis files from his office, he needs someone he can also trust to trail this group of bizarre small town screw-ups. Going against his better instincts, Sughrue takes the job and the twenty-grand retainer. As per usual and as expected things rapidly spin out of control as one by one people wind up dead, often in gruesome ways.

As with most good mysteries, the getting there is as important as solving the case. In Crumley’s world there is always an abundance of booze, drugs and random sex to accompany the seemingly random violence.

“It’s a tough trip, but there are some chuckles along the way, and it’s worth it,” the author said in a recent interview in Montana Quarterly. He’s often confused with his characters when it comes to his life style while working, but had this to say on that subject. “I find it amazing that readers would think that my idea of fun is to lock myself in a small room by myself…to drink. I much prefer cocktails and conversation with other people. Alcohol never makes anybody smarter; it was invented by the earliest humans for a reason, to sharpen or block the visions, to release pent-up emotions and to cause gales of laughter. It still works. But only a blockhead writes for anything but money, as Johnson said, and only a fool tries to write drunk or twisted.”

His books often contain some of the most gruesome, vicious scenes found in literature, ones that may haunt a reader for months or longer.

“My job, I think, is to make certain that, one, the violence actually hurts, makes the reader want to turn away, and second, that the scenes are as unique as I can make them. I don’t dredge up these scenes. I rewrite them endlessly until they become real. For me, it’s a literary problem. I’ve been on both sides of violence.”

Crumley is the author of eleven novels including The Last Good Kiss, One to Count Cadence, Dancing Bear and The Mexican Tree Duck, a book that won the Dashiell Hammett Award for Best Literary Crime Novel from the International Association of Crime Writers.

And please don’t let the violence and lust dissuade you from reading this guy. He can write, like this:

It was a lovely, calm Montana summer evening, a Saturday night after a long weekend of softball. The full moon rose blazing over Mount Sentinel, outlining the maw of the Hellgate Canyon with silver fire. A streak of summer haze like a line of blood lay across the moon’s idiot face. The motel’s pool lights were reduced to dim glows. The hot tub shimmered around us like a pot of silver. The early August afternoon had been as 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…

When Crumley’s on his game, there’s nobody any better. Even when’s he’s a touch off, he has few peers. The Right Madness falls barely short of perfection and that’s probably as it should be. None of his characters even try to achieve such a bizarre state of esoteric grace.

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