BOOK REIVEW / Speak softly and carry a big machine gun: 'The Mexican Tree Duck; One to Count Cadence' - James Crumley: Picador, 14.99 and 5.99

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James Crumley has been writing The Mexican Tree Duck on and - more usually - off for the past 10 years, although its hero, Montana-based private detective C W Sughrue ('Sugh as in sugar, rue as in rue the godammed day') hasn't had a case since The Last Good Kiss, in 1978.

On the whole it's worth the wait. When in the opening pages Sughrue plonks the jukebox from his favourite saloon in front of an oncoming train because the management has taken Hank Snow off the playlist, you settle in for the fun. Especially when Sughrue's next job is to trace a tank of tropical fish for a pair of comic grotesques who wouldn't look out of place in a Dickens' novel.

The fish have to be rescued from Abnormal Norman, head of a biker gang which only takes members too evil for any other gang to tolerate. Sughrue, whose motto in this novel might be speak softly but carry a big machine gun, sidearms and maybe an armoured personnel carrier, gets the fish back with a major show of force. Norman, impressed, hires him to rescue his kidnapped mother.

The pleasure of Crumley's writing has always been in the characters, dialogue and incidental delights rather than the plotting. That's just as well, since as soon as Sughrue sets off to find the woman Crumley retains only a nominal hold on the plot. Thereafter the narrative doesn't meander, it hiccups. Incidents that Crumley spends pages setting up are dismissed in a sentence, deftly described characters disappear for good. Maybe after 10 years Crumley just wanted to get the damned book finished.

In his search, Sughrue, assisted by a trio of Vietnam war buddies (an alcoholic postman, a crippled lawyer and a cop dying of cancer) uncovers links between the kidnapping of Norman's mum and drug smuggling, oil rustling and dirty politics. The eponymous Duck, a rare but perhaps fake antique glazed with human blood, waddles in about halfway through as an extra McGuffin.

Sughrue, who suffers betrayal at every turn, isn't in much of a hurry in his quest - there's always time to stop for a big meal, a couple of gallons of booze and, for a man his age, an alarming amount of drugs. All the good guys chasing the Duck are substance abusers on an epic scale, though none of them are spring chickens. There are several macho confrontations followed either by broken jaws and broken-up bars or manly laughter (the kind John Ford and Peckinpah characters go in for) and, of course, more beer.

There's too much male posturing and some of the violent incidents are cartoonish, but Crumley is never dull. The dialogue is satistyingly snappy and entertaining. And the quality of the prose, the rhythm of the writing, flows over the shortcomings of the plot. Like James Ellroy (whose Big Nowhere Crumley has turned into a Hollywood film script) he is a master of American vernacular, turning tough-guy slang into something like poetry.

Crumley took up detective writing to pay the rent while working on 'real writing', a 'Texas novel' he's been messing with for over 30 years. (He claims he will do anything to avoid writing: he once carpeted all his three cars, including the insides of the fenders and the wheelwells, rather than get down to it.) The Texas novel should have been his second. His first, One To Count Cadence, published in the US in 1969, is now published in Britain for the first time.

Written in the early Sixties, it's set in 1962 on Clark Air Force base in the Philippines among a group of enlisted soldiers who are eventually shipped to Vietnam for a clandestine operation. Although it has presumably been published now partly to capitalise on the reawakened interest in the Vietnam War, and Crumley presciently quotes at the start of the novel Conrad's Heart of Darkness (the novel which years later was transmogrified into Apocalypse Now), One To Count Cadence is not about the Vietnam War. Nor is it, as the publisher's blurb suggests, anything like Catch 22's absurdist anti-war polemic. Instead it's a story, told without irony, of a man who likes fighting.

The narrator, Sergeant Jacob 'Slag' Krummel, sees himself not as a soldier but as a warrior: 'the final moment of a proud descent of professional soldiers, warriors, men of strength whose only concern with virtue lay in personal honour'. He is an academic turned soldier, a re-enlisted man who makes repeated references to the warriors in the Iliad when talking about soldiering.

However, he and the men under his command, bored mindless carrying out their mundane duties, do most of their fighting in bars when they go into the local town for whoring and - here we go again - serious drinking.

Crumley wears his literary learning on his sleeve throughout the book. His writing is lusher here than in his later detective novels, with painstaking and evocative descriptions of landscapes and much pseudo-intellectual philosophising about men and fighting. But it's intriguing to see the lineaments of his later style. The dialogue is laconic and vivid, the characterisations sharp.

One To Count Cadence is a dark, intense and deeply felt novel, but one worth reading these days I suspect only if you are an aficionado of Crumley's work. There's clearly autobiography in here, with Jacob Krummel sharing, in addition to a similar name and physique, some of James Crumley's experiences (college, hunting game, etc). How far Krummel's willingness to fight at the least provocation reflected the young Crumley's own attitude is anybody's guess. Except that Crumley, an enlisted Army man himself after college, celebrated this book's acceptance by a publisher by 'getting Western' with seven college football players in a bar, two of whom broke their hands on his head.

(Photograph omitted)

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