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The Mexican Tree Duck, James Crumley

Longtime subscribers to First Impressions may remember my comments about the previous Crumley that I read, The Muddy Fork and Other Tales, which was a collection of essays, interview, short stories, and unfinished novels. In my comments, I said that I would prefer the finished work. Lo and behold, here is one of those unfinished novels present and complete.

C.W. Sughrue from The Last Good Kiss is back, and hasn’t really changed. That’s part of the problem with PI and detective novels. In most novels, the lead character is expected to change– it’s one of those things they teach you in writing workshops. In fact, the Star Trek folks have managed to pin it down to two words: character arc. While it is horribly abused in Star Trek (it would probably make a great drinking game–first, identify the character who will “change” before the end of the episode, and then identify the “change.” I put change in quotes, because in Star Trek the arc is only good for one episode–by the time the next episode comes around, the character seems to have forgotten their life changing episode. [Okay, I’m not being fair, there are exceptions.]), it is a “formula” that much great fiction follows–except the mystery genre (oh, all right, I’m pontificating. I know SF and romance has a tradition of not following it either, but I’m working a different argument at the moment.). I admire the work of Rex Stout, but it isn’t character growth that brings me back. Nero and Archie are roughly the same in a book that Stout wrote in the 50s as they are in the 70s. Just as in some SF, where the readers return time and again to the same “world” (say, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern), readers return to the characters of Holmes, Miss Marple, and Perry Mason. When mystery writers stray from this prediliction, as James Ellroy did in The Black Dahlia and as Crumley did in The Last Good Kiss, the result is often quite pleasurable and breathtaking.

So it is with trepidation that I approached a novel in which Sughrue takes the stage once again. My fear proved true: this isn’t a great novel like The Last Good Kiss. It’s not bad, but it ain’t got that same sort of swing. Sughrue continues his worldly self-destruction, and Crumley mixes in some wonderful Vietnam vet knowledge, but the centre does not hold. Crumley is still a wonderful writer, and while the plot may not be sliced bread, some of the descriptions are certainly tasty enough to be eaten and enjoyed.

[Finished 19 November 1994]


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