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The Past | The Previous

The Wrong Case, James Crumley

Originally published in 1975, The Wrong Case is James Crumley's second novel, but the first to feature one of his two reoccurring private investigators, Milo Milodragovitch. His second character, C.W. Sughrue, is in Crumley's third novel, The Last Good Kiss.

Crumley's first novel was, from what I understand, a book about Vietnam, and it wasn't until his second that he turned to writing hard boiled detective novels, of which he published seven, with the 1996 Bordersnakes featuring both Milo and Sughrue together. I'd read that one, which I liked, but I always felt a little as if I didn't fully appreciate it, having never read any of the previous ones, and resolved that I should. I've always liked a good bit of hard boiled crime, and Crumley, much to his credit in the prosaically titled The Wrong Case offers a pretty decent one, though by no means perfect.

The trouble begins with Milo lamenting his future. The son of a rich drunk, his fortune is unavailable to him until he turns fifty four, and until then, he has made his living off the law, in one way or another. Mostly, though, he works divorce cases--until, that is, a law came through that ended that work, ensuring that husbands and wives could get divorced on the grounds of differences, and without anyone proving that they were having an affair. Before, you had to get them on a felony or adultery, and nothing else mattered. As he explains it, "I made a good living off those antiquated divorce laws." What's a man to do, then, when his business is dying and his fortune is locked away?

Drink.

Milo is a drunk. He likes his drugs, and he'll be stoned and angry on speed at various points during the novel, but mostly, he'll be drunk. Drunk to forget the things that happen. Drunk to forget the things happening. Drunk to forget the girl who walked into his office, wanting him to find out how her brother died.

Generally speaking, the plot isn't anything special. It is a bit all over the place, for the kids addicted to heroin who are mugging people for cash, to the history of the brother, to the affairs and romances of the girl who walked into the office. Until the last two chapters, I would have sworn that they were just going to end fairly much in the way they did, but without giving you a sense of closure, or of feeling like a mystery had been solved. Yet, strangely, and I think perhaps despite Crumley himself, the book does manage that, and it does it in a fairly satisfying conclusion, even if at times getting there didn't feel like it.

But it's still pretty enjoyable, I have to admit. Crumley has a nice voice, similar to Chandler, but with a sixties, seventies theme of the state of America running through it. There's a very real sense that Crumley's return from the Vietnam War has changed how he sees the country and there is a real sense that he is using the narrative to explore that, especially in regards to the change in moral complexity taking place across this period. Even if the book didn't manage to pull itself together in the last twenty odd pages to close strongly, I'd still recommend it based on that.

Cool book, anyhow. I look forward to The Last Good Kiss which is, from what I understand, the one that everyone considers the best.