Liquor, lawlessness, and loose, loose ladies

Liquor, lawlessness, and loose, loose ladies

Jefferson Chase gets in to frontier territory with hard-boiled crime writer James Crumley
James Crumley

21 January 2005

Publication: Issue 45

Think hard-boiled crime fiction, and probably one of the last settings you’d imagine is Montana. Big Sky Country is usually more of a place for logging boots than gumshoes, but wherever there’s a frontier, there’s liquor, lawlessness and loose women – three main ingredients of the noire genre.James Crumley – a native Texan who’s long made his home up north – has been described as “the bastard son of Raymond Chandler,“ “a heavy drinker“ and an “amoral moralist.“ All accolades for a hardboiled writer.And he imparted these qualities to his alter ego, detective Milo Milodragovitch, in his debut potboiler The Wrong Case from 1975. The down-at-the-heels son of one of the state’s leading political families, Milo alternates between being a hell of a nice guy and a drunken jerk.This becomes clear when an attractive female client shows up at his office, looking for both her missing brother and some early afternoon refreshment.I had had some strange requests in my office. Husbands who wanted me to do obscene things to myself when they found out that their wives were exactly the sluts they supposed them to be... Wives had made their share of indecent requests too. Usually concerning my fee. They tried to take it out in trade, and sometimes when they discovered I'd take it out but wouldn't trade it for
anything... But I’d never been asked to whip up a whiskey sour.”Milo fulfills this request by ordering takeaway service from his local watering hole, described as “a wino bar, and anyone anybody who asks for anything fancier than soda with their whiskey is either a sissy or a stranger.“The detective may be the star of The Wrong Case, but rough-knuckled Montana gets its fair share in the spotlight as well. When Milo’s client asks whether take-out cocktails are legal, the detective snorts in response.“Sure. This is the great American West. Where men came to get away from laws. Almost anything in this state is legal. And a lot of things that are illegal are done in spite of the law. You can order ten whiskey sours in go cups, then get into your car and fly up and down the highway at whatever speed you can call reasonable and proper. You can murder your spouse and the lover in a fit, preferably of passion, and the maximum sentence is five years, and even that is usually suspended.”Note the “preferably“. The only thing that’s frowned upon in Montana, it turns out, is heroin.And heroin is what has been showing up on the streets of the small city where Milo plies his trade – quite possibly as a result of the case he has been hired to investigate.Yet as is true for the vast majority of noire fiction, it’s the character of the detective and the atmosphere – not the case itself – that makes this book worth reading.As Milo begins to untangle the strands of the plot and starts bedding down his client, he finds himself becoming simultaneously ever more involved and unravelled.After the death of a friend, the moment of epiphany comes – where else? – in the men’s room.Vomiting into the toilet of the Willomot Bar, not far from the drink but from the knowledge and the dying, I felt my father’s hand holding my head. He had left me this legacy of humility, and I accepted it... I understood I wasn’t going to kill anybody, except myself, and not myself for a long time yet. I remembered Simon telling me to slow down, not to drink myself to death before I had time to enjoy it.
When I finished puking, I went back into the bar to wash out my mouth with whiskey.No whiskey sours in this scene, just a perverse, true-to-life and perhaps life-affirming refusal to let reason get in the way of self-destructive behaviour.Or as Crumley puts it: “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 a lesson we can all stand to learn every once in a while.

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