Imagine Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke as a licensed private detective and you’ll have a pretty good idea what to expect from C.W. Sughrue, novelist James Crumley’s Montana-based skip tracer. Beer-and-cocaine-fueled, an irascible wild man with a passion for side arms and a full-bore contempt for authority, Sughrue (”’Shoog’ as in sugar…and ‘rue’ as in rue the goddamned day”) is back in business for the first time since 1978’s The Last Good Kiss. What’s he been up to since then? Not much, as he tells us in the opening pages of The Mexican Tree Duck: tending bar, sleeping on other people’s floors, and growing older, crankier, crazier.
Forced by an awesome pile of legal bills to resume his career — shoving a jukebox into the path of a Spokane, Wash.-bound freight train seemed like a harmless prank at the time — Sughrue is hired to repossess a handful of tropical fish stolen by Abnormal Norman Hazelbrook, chief executive officer of the Snowdrifters, a biker gang ”made up of misfits and rejects from gangs all over the country.”
Not someone given to stealth when he can simply borrow a machine gun, Sughrue unleashes a commando-style assault on the Snowdrifters’ fortified compound: mission brazenly accomplished. So brazenly that even Norman is impressed and winds up not only forgiving Sughrue but paying him to find his mother, recently vanished and presumed kidnapped.
Armed to the teeth and accompanied by a pair of Vietnam War buddies (a Denver cop dying of cancer and an alcoholic mailman), Sughrue barrels throughout the American West in an antique VW bus, hot in pursuit of the missing Sarita Pines, whose disappearance looks to be linked to drug smuggling, oil rustling, dirty politics, and a piece of screwy-looking pottery glazed with human blood. Like Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese falcon, the Mexican tree duck swiped from a millionaire and last seen swaddled in a baby’s diaper bag may or may not be a priceless antique. But possession of it can prove lethal.
The pleasures of a James Crumley novel (rare pleasures, indeed: This is his first new one in 10 years) derive mostly from the zing of its characters, the bite of its epigrams (”The bear of real life is waiting for everybody”), and a restless, almost manic vitality-prose on amphetamines. When the mix of black humor, violence, and trivia is this persuasive, and the setting is evoked as crisply as the landscape of an Ansel Adams photograph, you scarcely notice (till you’re about 30 pages from the end and begin to scratch your head) that the plot has more holes in it than a road sign used for target practice. Along with most of the bad guys, and some of the (relatively) good ones, logic is a casualty here. Maybe that’s just the point, though: In Sughrue’s world, cause and effect, as well as heroes and happy endings, have long since parted company. This sure as shooting isn’t John Wayne’s Wild West. But it’s probably ours. B