Thursday, January 18, 2018

Review: Black Hammer, Vol. 1: Secret Origins

Black Hammer, Vol. 1: Secret Origins Black Hammer, Vol. 1: Secret Origins by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t do superhero comics. I guess I just feel the genre is bled dry, that the thirtieth reboot of Spiderman or Wonder Woman isn’t likely to tell me much. For the major characters, there’s simply too much at stake for the publishers to let a creative author/artist do any long-term damage. (The great exception being the famous Frank Miller Dark Knight Returns reimagining of Batman, and that’s more than 25 years ago.) And for the small publishers trying to break a big new character, the template is too clear: create a tortured hero who’s somehow drawn to do good. Maybe I’m missing some interesting work, but I’m convinced I’d be digging through a lot of lame stuff to find something I only modestly enjoy.

Anyway, I wouldn’t have picked this one up if my local store people hadn’t insisted. I ignored them the first time. I tried to ignore them the second, but they had it on sale and prominently displayed in their “employee recommendations.” So, I gave it a shot.

And I’m glad I did.

At least at the beginning, this is to an ordinary superhero comic the way The Watchmen was. It’s using the form for a purpose beyond itself. We know all along that we’re reading a comic – and reading it is part of the fun – but we also know we’re being asked to confront the limits of what it means to get lost in a fantasy. This is as much a meta-comic as it is a weirdly original and twisted story. It’s really a comic book about what it means to read comics.

We learn almost right away that a superhero group is trapped on a small farm. They remember defeating an apocalyptic enemy named the anti-god, and then, without any other information, they find themselves confined to the farm and its environs. A decade later, and they are separately trying to grapple with what the unexplained change means for all of them.

Each character addresses the challenge differently. Golden Gail is a character in the mold of D.C.’s old Captain Marvel; when she says a magic word she’s restored to the shape of the little girl she was when she first chanced upon an ancient priest, and she has secret powers. She’s actually a woman in her middle 50s but, on the farm, she’s trapped inside her child body. To keep up the pretext that they’re just an ordinary farm family, she has to go to school every day, and she cannot smoke or drink as she would like.

I read her as a fairly straightforward metaphor for the way the larger comics world remains, for most non-readers, a child’s experience. The best graphics novel writers and artists are after some serious matters, but they can never escape appearing like children’s entertainers.

In a different fashion, we see Colonel Weird, a one-time space adventurer who, having entered something called the Anti-Zone, now exists in multiple places and at multiple times. If Gail represents an acknowledgement of the necessary child-like appearance to comics, I see Colonel Weird representing some of the peculiar suspension of disbelief that taking comics seriously demands. He’s capable of occasional bouts of rationalism but, for the most part, he’s doddering and unfocused.

And our most frequent point of view character is Abraham Slam, a Batman type (without the brooding) who decides to make the best of it all. He serves as the grandfather patriarch of the clan, and he sees to the real work of tending the farm. He enjoys the sunsets of the open fields, he’s in love with a waitress in town, and he wants the others to be as happy as possible. He is, in other words, an insistent invitation to enjoy the strangeness in front of us without asking too many questions.

Each of those perspectives on the comics experience floats around the story, giving Black Hammer an unusual multi-dimensional quality. There’s a lot going in, not just in back story and inter-character tension, but as a narrative, too. We don’t get all our information in the same way; some comes through the perspective of one character and some from others’. It gets dizzying in a way I really appreciate.

I loved the first couple issues because I’d never seen anything like it. The next few seemed to me a notch less good, though. Instead of diving much deeper into what seemed the central conflict, the book explores laterally, giving us a more sustained sense of each character: we also get a closeted gay Martian warlord, a cranky robot, and a witch who’d just found her long-promised true love before the strange events of a decade before.

The result of all those additions isn’t all bad; it feels something like the TV series Lost with a group of survivors getting only rare clues to the central mystery of their experience. It’s possible that, over time, that mystery will prove as interesting in its solution as it is in the way Jeff Lemire poses it to begin with.

But still, for me at least, the central joy of this is its self-awareness, it’s simultaneous acknowledgement that we’ve seen all this in other superhero comics and that, if we can sustain our belief against the “adult” mockery of the genre, there’s something new and inspiring within it. I’m hoping Lemire will be able to hold onto that aspect of this as he moves forward, and I’d like to move forward with him – at least for another volume.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review: Hillbilly, Volume 1

Hillbilly, Volume 1 Hillbilly, Volume 1 by Eric Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Graphic novels are a fair bit like movies. They depend on the talents of a diverse cast and crew. It’s most evident in the writer/illustrator link, but it extends to other elements as well: inking, lettering, layout, cover design, and even marketing. It takes people who are expert in all those dimensions to pull the whole together. We can assign someone the “starring role” – the writer usually has the status of a film director while the artist is more like the cast of actors – but it’s still generally a collaborative effort.

Eric Powell may be the most significant double-, triple-, or even quadruple threat in graphic novels. He writes with an entirely distinct rhythm, somehow referencing 1930s slang (in The Goon) or Appalachian lyricism (here), and creating flawed heroes with compelling agendas. Everything is simultaneously over the top and understated, with characters who are both archetypes (the toughest and meanest hombres) and yet subtle in their interactions with others. Add to that Powell’s being arguably the most talented artist in the business, and it’s no wonder no other one-man band can touch him. Now, with Hillbilly (and I admit to not knowing all the details) he’s back into self-publishing as well.

I love The Goon, and if you haven’t read all or good-sized chunks of it, I recommend starting there. There’s a flamboyant joy to almost every page. The big, bright illustrations pull you in, and then you find yourself talking like Frankie or the Goon. There’s something primal in it, something that makes you think it was always there and Powell simply uncovered it for the rest of us to see. It’s as brilliant in its way as Krazy Kat.

The Hillbilly is promising – I’ll certainly try to check out Volume two which I understand came out a week or two ago – but it falls a bit short of that organic whole. The art is as strong as ever, at times even more brilliant. The story seems a bit more contrived (though “contrived” isn’t necessarily a complaint since both Hillbilly and The Goon turn on short episodes that come to us out of chronological order). The Hillbilly hates witches for what they did to him as a child, so now he’s pledged to destroy them all. That means, so far, a certain sameness to each situation.

But the biggest difference is in the general dark wash across the whole work. In place of the technicolor of The Goon, we get a subdued color tone. There’s a grey that pushes against the fundamental fun, the basic joy, of Powell’s art. As beautiful and inventive as this is, it’s a little less fun than The Goon. In keeping with that, the one character who returns from The Goon to this series is The Buzzard, an intriguing but somber creature who, beginning as a human sheriff, evolves here into Death itself. So, yeah, interesting but not quite as joyful as something like Frankie promising enemy mobsters a “knife in the eye.”

I have no way of knowing how much of that is Powell’s decision and how much is the result of his using different collaborators in things like inking. In any case, if the result is slightly below average Powell, it’s certainly well above average as a graphic novel. What’s here is good. If Powell can expand the premise and recover some of the humor, this could be great.

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review: In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one seems easy to describe: it’s a serial killer novel from the point-of-view of the murderer. We see the trope all the time now, whether in something like Silence of the Lambs or Dexter.

On the other hand, that doesn’t quite do justice to what this is. Since this is written in 1947, it isn’t expanding the genre, it’s inventing it. Here’s a character in a novel who sizes up women for the kill, and it’s coming to us nearly a decade before The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Part of what makes this one so extraordinary is that it feels transgressive. It comes across with a perpetual whiff that it’s going farther than anything that’s come before it. As I read it, I found myself in a dark mood, angry at the world and looking for someone on whom to focus my frustrations. It captures a terrifying perspective on the world through banality. There’s a constant sense that something is about to explode, that neither our protagonist Dix nor Hughes herself can get away with all of it.

I like to read noir in general as an applied ethics, a kind of generic inquiry into what we should do in a world where it’s no longer clear what right or wrong means. The weight of that question usually falls on the protagonist, on the Philip Marlowe who, jaded and broke, nevertheless follows a code we can begin to recognize as existential.

In this case, though, the weight of it falls on us as readers. Hughes is deft in the way she lets us see the truth of Dix – we come to suspect him only slowly and then can’t confirm those suspicions until fairly late in the novel – so the wrongness at the heart of him emerges only slowly. He’s our protagonist; he’s a veteran of World War II who laments the lost freedom of serving as a pilot in a war that gave him purpose. As such, he demands our sympathy. We’re programmed to root for him.

Our ethical obligation as readers, then, is to check that impulse, to find a way to root against him despite our inclinations. Hughes calls on us to make a difficult, ethical choice, to condemn a man we suspect of something horrific even though we can’t be certain of that until things are almost finished. (I think that’s why it’s so uncomfortable to read this. Hughes is challenging us to be more careful readers; she makes us subjects in a psychology experiment, and we’re left with the troubling sense that we are likely imperfect in sorting out the good from the convenient.)

Anyway, all that would be enough for me to admire this, but the excellent afterword in my New York Review of Books edition – by the excellent contemporary noir author Megan Abbott – makes me see yet another dimension of this.

The real heroes of this novel are the two central women, one cast in the femme fatale mode and the other in the loyal and virtuous wife role. Where the men of the story see only what they want to see in Dix, the two women recognize a vague wrongness. They have a more finely tuned moral compass, and their suspicions are what [SPOILER] ultimately save the day.

As a result, Abbott helps me see the degree to which this is a feminist response to the hardboiled tradition. It’s a critique not just of masculinity but also of the roles into which women were cast within the genre.

I’m already mostly convinced that I’ll include one of Abbott’s novels the next time I teach my hardboiled/noir class. Now I think I might try to find room for this one as well.

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Review: Homer & Langley

Homer & Langley Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to come back to the king of historical realism – the school of literature where you have fictional characters interacting with historical figures – in our moment of “fake news” processing. This one is from 2009, another era altogether at this point, but I’ve meant to get to it since it first came out. At his best, in Ragtime, Doctorow can be close to incandescent; he lets us see the way a semi-forgotten series of events set the stage for what we know today. At his less good, like Billy Bathgate, he seems more interested in having fun with his material than in finding some shining immediacy to it.

This one has some powerful and powerfully relevant moments. Homer and Langley are the sons of a late 19th century New York socialite family, but things go awry when Homer goes blind in his youth, their parents die of the flu, and Langley returns from World War I with PTSD from being gassed. They proceed to live in the same Park Avenue mansion for the next sixty years, gradually turning into obsessive hoarders and filling the house with junk until its unnavigable and barely livable.

Homer narrates the entire story, and there’s a power in his point-of-view. On the one hand, his blindness is both literal and metaphorical; he can’t see what’s becoming of their home. To him, it still looks as it did when their parents were alive, as it looked before the American century really began. On the other hand, his acute other senses come into play so that this is a book very much about sound – about the sounds he hears and overhears, and about the stunning sound of Doctorow’s prose.

Homer is more or less the passenger here, and it’s Langley who brings the philosophy. He insists he has become a hoarder in pursuit of a greater truth. He develops a theory that all history is redundant. Everything that happens is an iteration of something that has happened before, and every individual is a replacement for someone preceding him or her. He saves newspapers in large bundles with the intent of creating a single edition of a universal newspaper, a chronicle of every event as it happens in a kind of Platonic way. It’s an impossible task, and he seems to know that, but it gives him an excuse to try to find a place for everything.

The central challenge to that claim lies the prospect that he and Homer are somehow “sui generis,” that they are unlike everyone else and therefore the exceptions that break the rule he is trying to prove. I get the impression that’s the view that Doctorow takes, and it’s sometimes what Homer seems to believe himself. These are characters who emerge as distinctive, who endure across the decades, bringing a piece of the distant past to life in the late 1970s. They are, in many respects, Edwardians who live long enough to seem like proto-hippies. (And, in a nice move, they come to serve as the models for a pair of underground comix figures very much like R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural.)

As I read this, then, the brothers’ story is largely the challenge of extricating a sense of self from the suffocating detritus of everyday life. Langley tries literally to bury them under junk, but something distinct and human remains. [SPOILER] In fact, that’s most poignantly the case in the closing pages when it becomes apparent that Langley has died under an avalanche of old papers and Homer, unable to feed himself in his blind and trapped-in-the-labyrinth condition, sits at his typewriter wondering where his brother has gone. Even at the end, he’s a voice trying to make sense of his existence amidst a clutter that’s overwhelming.

I think that’s a powerful image, and I can imagine it’s why Doctorow went with this story. I’m confused about a couple key elements, though. This is based on the real-life Collyer brothers; Doctorow leaves the names unchanged, but he moves the setting up a couple decades so that they live well past the 1940s when they, in fact, died. That substantial change aside, though, Doctorow causes little to happen. His prose is gorgeous, but there’s little plot. These are men who have attempted to step outside history; they’re visited by Prohibition and 1950s era gangsters, and they get to know 1960s counter-culture types, but they are never pulled into any substantial action. I’m confused why Doctorow, if he’s willing to tamper so much with his source material, doesn’t bring in more of the conflict that fiction usually provides. It gives us, in other words, a greater element of “the fake” than I’m used to from Doctorow, and I’m not sure what such a price buys for it.

In a way, this is also a love letter to New York – where the Collyers remain a kind of urban legend – but it’s told through a boarded-up window. It’s a quasi-celebration of the city, but it’s withdrawn and restrained. It implies a great exuberance outside their doors, but it gives us only the slightest glimpses of it.

As an aside, while Doctorow is regarded as the king of this genre, my personal hero within it is William Kennedy. I think Ironweed and Roscoe are the equals of Ragtime – which is saying a lot for all three novels – and I think Kennedy’s “lesser” novels are stronger than the other Doctorow I’ve read. Doctorow seems ever in awe of the city he’s chronicling; Kennedy, who is the great chronicler of Albany, New York, takes on his city with a roguish grin, loving it for its corruption and even more for the great humanity that corruption can never entirely erase.

In any case, this is a short and memorable work, but it’s memorable more for its tone and the longing at its heart than for the way it might have come together as part of a more ambitious collision between two ways of looking at the world.

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Review: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Shit happens.

I don’t mean that in the evaluative sense, though take it as you will in this political moment. Instead, I mean it in the philosophical. Things take place. They occur. I mean it as a coarse reminder that experience is real.

The challenge is to describe that “shit,” to find language and narrative strategies that accurately reflect experience without turning it into something entirely different. It’s about being “true.”

There’s been a lot of talk in the last year and a half about the difficulties of distinguishing true events from fake ones, but the argument is not as new as we make it sound. Plato’s parable of the cave – his suggestion that all we can see of ultimate reality is the shadows it casts upon a cave wall – is one of the earliest and most enduring articulations of it. The sometimes silly talk about deconstruction that dominated my graduate school years is another in a completely different vein, arguing that language itself is not always as reliable a tool as we want it to be in naming the real.

I wonder, probably belatedly, if the most sustained version of that discussion in recent years hasn’t been the phenomenon of “reality TV.” I’ve never had much patience for the genre – unless you expand reality TV to include sports, in which case I find it riveting – but there’s no question it’s become a major force in reshaping American culture. The “reality” part of it, is undeniably real. You have recordings of people saying and doing things they indisputably said and did.

The “TV” part of it is there as well, of course, but it’s less visible since it’s a matter of selection. The producers pick and choose the excerpts they include, and then they exclude the vast majority of the possibilities. They do so, always, in the service of a central narrative. They want to tell a particular story about a group of individuals, and, in the service of that impression, they leave out most of the possibilities that contradict it.

In almost every case, as I understand it, the central narrative of reality TV (with the possible exception of skills-based reality TV like the later stages of American Idol or America’s Got Talent when only the finalists remain) is that we get the privilege of laughing at the subject in question. No matter how handsome the Bachelor may be, no matter how many beautiful women seem willing to throw themselves at him, he comes across as a too-pleased-with-himself guy undeserving of the love of Bachelorette #7. No matter how many followers a Kardashian sister collects, and no matter how many other celebrities fall into her web, she remains a narcissist not quite clued into the recognition that she’s the punch-line to a joke the show keeps telling and telling.

It’s nothing new to say that Donald Trump is a reality TV president. Yet, that insight lies underneath all the crazy ferment that Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, is producing. This is a Presidency committed to giving us a reality that it directs. (Other presidencies have done so as well, of course, but never with the same contempt for institutions like the media, the courts, or our intelligence services that can provide a counter-narrative.) Trump’s declared war on the media is ultimately about his frustration that he cannot single-handedly declare what is true and that he lacks the editing power of a TV producer to eliminate the strands of the story that clash with the central narrative he’s pushing.

In essence, Wolff’s book is its own claim to reality, its own “reality chronicle” of the last year or so in politics. Wolff makes a bid for credibility in his “Author’s Note,” when he claims he’s had “more than two hundred interviews” and that he wound up with, thanks to the chaos of the White House, “fly-on-the-wall” access to much of what took place. He is, in so many words, asserting that he had the same kind of authorial perspective that the producers of Jersey Shore or Big Brother would have had. That gave him reams of “footage” he could include or exclude as he wrote. And he’s claiming the authority to show us the “real world” of the White House.

There’s been some pushback about basic factual errors in this work, but I think that misses the point. It’s less concerning to me that he might have confused Michael Berman with Matt Berman, and more concerning to me that everything in this book shares the same purpose, serves the same over-arching narrative: Donald Trump is an individual staggeringly unsuited to be President.

And here’s why that bothers me: I already believe it. I have heard that story from many other sources, and I have found myself telling it from the evidence of his many tweets and public statements.

As a result, as compelling as this book certainly is – as much fun as it is to read that Steve Bannon and many other insiders see Trump in as condescending a light as I do – it’s ultimately somewhat dangerous. The best political writing helps us see a larger political narrative than the one our daily journalism provides. This book confirms and perhaps amplifies what we already think we know.

Reality TV succeeds because it’s addictive, and this book feeds the addiction of the show that is our reality TV president. Trump hates it not so much because he sees it as true or untrue – although he and his supporters have every right to wave its clear mistakes against it – but because it is, in effect, a rival producer’s bid to tell the master narrative of his presidency. He hates it for the same reason he hated Mark Cuban’s Shark Tank – a show that ventured too closely into Apprentice territory – and then he hates it even more for asserting its power to make him a character in that rival show.

He hates it because it revives the claim that for many of us the truth about him is the truth implicit in all reality TV: that the subject is always the joke. I imagine (along with many others) that the real danger of the Trump personality, so wrapped in narcissism as it is, is that he is always almost aware of the degree to which the world outside his shell is laughing at him. He hates this book because it’s such a sustained assault on what he insists is real – his own greatness – and because it makes its case through the tools of the reality TV genre that he has spent so much time manipulating himself.

The book we need right now is one that makes sense of these larger currents, that critiques the reality-TV lens rather than embraces it. We need one that helps not just the philosophers but the people who deal with “the shit” find a way out of the deliberate confusion of the real and the true, one that helps us see our reality more clearly, in all its contradictions, rather than one that offers a version more in line with what many of us are already convinced is true. I wish Wolff, who is often very smart here, were smart enough to write that book. I wish I were smart enough to write it.

There’s certainly some fun in reading this. On the one hand, it’s weird to read the events of the last year as history, to be reminded that, “Oh yeah, he did say all those weird things at the Boy Scout Jamboree” or “Has it really only been six months since Scaramucci?” But all of those conflicts come in chapters organized in general around individual conflicts; they read like episodes of Survivor with each character taking a turn as the central figure in a drama dominated by Trump, Bannon and “Jarvanka.”

As a bottom line, then, this is not the book we need. It is, however, the book that many of us want. I’ve enjoyed reading it – I knocked it off in little more than a day – but I admit I’ve felt as guilty in doing so as I would if I ever caught myself looking at the clock and realizing I’d just spent half an hour listening to Kris Jenner talk about the nature of celebrity.

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Review: Dead Clown Blues

Dead Clown Blues Dead Clown Blues by R. Daniel Lester
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been interested in this publisher, Shotgun Honey, for a very specific reason: the best noir has always come from second-rate technological publications. The Black Mask stories were literally pulp fiction, magazines printed on low-quality paper and churned out. The noir films of the early 1950s were black-and-white originally not for artistic reasons but because they cost less to make. So it makes sense that somewhere, someone, is doing that contemporary thing as an e-publisher with print-on-demand; it’s a cheap, economical way to get out real books and establish a list. Most of that stuff will be forgettable (which is true of almost every other publisher) but the best should be pretty good. And it might even be where the real cutting edge is happening.

I’m not sure I can call this one cutting edge, but it’s still a lot of fun. It’s an experiment in genre and form, taking the tired P.I.-with-a-bombshell-client trope and seeing if it can still serve. Above all, it’s an experiment in humor, and it works because Lester is a genuinely funny writer. I read this in the wake of a real master, James Crumley, so my standards were set high. Even with that, though, I found Lester signaling his sense of the genre with skill. I always knew where things were headed – a good thing – yet I also found myself enjoying the whodunit side of the affair. And, when that faded, I found a crisp and funny one-liner every few pages, clever enough to make me laugh aloud.

The story is just what the title suggests. Our protagonist inadvertently contributes to a drunken binge by a one-time circus clown, and that pulls him into a generation-old mystery around a circus, some lost Prohibition profits, and a gang of clown-thugs. Yes, it’s silly, but that doesn’t make it stale. Lester is quick-witted enough to keep things going. He keeps things short (this is really a novella), and he wraps it all up in a surprisingly satisfactory way.

[SPOILER] I like the way he makes the bombshell circus owner into the ultimate criminal powerhouse (even if her backstory of being abused by her father seems a bit dark for the otherwise persistently playful tone), and I like even more the way he has his main character end up compensated for his trouble by the gift of a tow truck and an unrequested new profession. This is a guy who’s been pushed around all his life; he doesn’t have the raw stuff to be a detective. It fits everything nicely – and cleverly – to have him settle into a different kind of seedy profession.

I certainly enjoyed this, but it doesn’t yet answer my question about Shotgun Honey. This is a promising start since it’s a work rooted in cleverness and fun. I’d like to see more to get a sense of the range these guys are bringing out and to see whether Lester is alone in being a solid and promising writer or whether he’s all alone in the stable.

Don’t be afraid to give this one a shot. It’s entirely fun – a kind of 1950s dress-up with the sensibility of a 21st century hipster-comedian – and it’s left me hungry for more.

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review: The Wrong Case

The Wrong Case The Wrong Case by James Crumley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

No matter when most detective fiction is set, part of it invariably takes place in 1955. That’s kind of the Victorian era of American literature – the moment when a public Eisenhower morality obscured a sordid underworld – and detective fiction is a lot like our Victorian novel: a popular form that, in talented hands, can be lasting literature. Chandler may have written much of his best work twenty years earlier, but he seemed to predict the 1950s (and many of the films of his novels were made then). And Ellroy, writing four decades later, set most of his work in the period. In between, their legion of imitators touched directly or indirectly on the same dynamic, a sense of noble disappointment that our American experiment carried a flotsam of cynicism, disappointment, and outright evil in its stream.

I mention all that because Crumley seems a rare bird who was able to re-fit the classic detective form into a different, later era. Writing around the same time as the more highly regarded (but so far, to me, disappointing) John D. MacDonald, he managed to modernize the form. MacDonald’s Travis McGee was just another Chandler “knight,” but a man even more removed from his time than Chandler’s Marlowe. I find him a whiner, but I do need to give him another shot, whining mostly about the fact that it isn’t 1955 anymore, that the world no longer has a clearly defined place for a man like himself.

Crumley, though, adjusted to the times. This is my second of his; it’s a bit less good than The Last Good Kiss, but, then, so is almost everything else. That reinvents the genre while this one merely stands as a satisfying extension of it. In either case, though, his novels feel alive, feel as if they’re using the genre to say something about a world that’s a couple decades newer than most of the others. (To be fair, Ellroy uses the 1950s to say a great deal about today, but that’s a matter for another day.)

In The Wrong Case, we have a cranky private eye in a mid-sized Western city. His great-grandfather established the family fortune as much through dumb luck as anything else, and now Milo has the means to stay drunk and dependent most of the time, needing to supplement things only a little with seedy divorce work that’s suddenly dried up with the state’s transformed dissolution laws.

On the surface, Milo is another fallen knight type, another guy walking down the mean streets without quite being sullied himself. He spends his days protecting a coterie of fellow drunks and down-on-their-luck drifters, and he doesn’t ask all that much for himself. Over the course of the novel, though, it becomes clear that he genuinely sees himself as lost. He sees all sorts of drug abuse and open sexuality, and he refuses to judge it. He suspects that these young people may be right, that they may have a better sense of how to lead a decent life than he does. And, since he’s certain he has no capacity for living decently, it’s inspiring to see his lack of self-righteousness.

In other words, he’s a hero not just in a different age, but for a different age. He sees a cultural transformation – it’s not Eisenhower’s America but Nixon’s – and he has a glimmer of hope that the young people he knows will do a better job than he or his self-important ancestors ever managed. There’s almost nothing he can do to help – the title suggests, after all, that he’s somehow on the wrong case all along – and even his solution of the mystery leaves things mostly as they were.

Throughout it all, Crumley writes with humor and insight. One of the reviews I glanced at calls him Chandler crossed with Hunter S. Thompson, and that’s a great way to put it. He’s Chandler forty years later; he’s Thompson without the full-blown misanthropy.

Consider this exchange:

Milo’s bartender friend laments a recently killed mutual friend, “The old fart survived two wars and some goddamned punk pushes him down the stairs and kills him. What the hell kinda life is that?”

And Milo answers, “I don’t know, Leo. The kind we have, I guess. I don’t know.”

I love the final “I don’t know” here. If I’d had the skill to draft such an exchange, I’d probably have cut it. But not-knowing is central to Milo’s existence. The world is in tumult, and he resists the standard impulse to complain that it isn’t as it was when he was a kid. It was broken and confusing then, and it’s broken and confusing now. The answers are never easy, and nostalgia isn’t any use.

There’s a gorgeous couple pages late in the novel – pages 235-6 in my Vintage contemporaries edition – that serve as a kind of ethical will from his father, a glorious drunk who died under suspicious circumstances when he was only 10, who tried to help him understand life while retching in a bathroom. It’s too long to quote entirely, but the essence of it is that there’s a kind of honesty in being a drunk. “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink because he’s probably a self-righteous sort, a man who thinks he knows right from wrong all the time. Some of them are good men, but in the name of goodness, they cause most of the suffering in the world. They’re the judges, the meddlers. And, son, never trust a man who drinks but refuses to get drunk. They’re usually afraid of something down deep inside, either that they’re a coward or a fool or mean and violent. You can’t trust a man who’s afraid of himself. But sometimes, son, you can trust a man who occasionally kneels before a toilet. The chances are that he is learning something about humility and his natural human foolishness, about how to survive himself. It’s damned hard for a man to take himself too seriously when he’s heaving his guts into a dirty toilet bowl.”

It’s not that sublime throughout – there are times you can see the guide wires of the standard form directing the action and coloring the minor characters we meet – but it’s certainly an inspiring effort. There are another 4-5 Crumleys out there, and I’ll get to them. I don’t know of any others that accomplish what he does, though, so I’ll be rationing them over the next good while.

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