Was this a mystery? Nominally. Was this an extended bender through the days of Milo’s feeble attempts to distract himself from the drunken ennui of his life? Most definitely.
“Age and sorrow, those were my only assets, my largest liabilities.
But like most men who drink too much, I had spent most of my life considering my dismal future, and it had stopped amusing me. So I had another drink and walked over to the north window to look down on the happy, employed folk of Meriwether.”
Helen Duffy is the classic beautiful dame walking into the solitary PI’s office, looking for help finding her missing brother. It takes us through a tour of Milo’s seedy life, his estranged co-worker, Jamison; his sort-of-fence and sort-of-son, Muffin; his best bar-friend, Simon, and then through choices places of the town.
“Most of Meriwether’s freaks, dopers, hippies and assorted young folk lived on the north side of town in an old blue-collar neighborhood, which the earlier residents had deserted in favor of take developments on the south side of town, but the neighborhood was still pleasant in a small-town way–inexpensive but fairly well-built houses that aged nicely, like a handsome woman, the yards shaded by old trees and overgrown with evergreen shrubbery and flowering bushes.”
Milo is an alcoholic first, and a half-hearted investigator second, and the story feels like its more about his alcoholic aspirations towards a decent woman (who would be wife #3) than a gumshoe mystery.
Crumley can write, there’s no doubt. But this is 1975, in a slummy northwest town with growing pains: tourists versus locals, hippies and freaks versus the old guard, heroin and coke versus alcohol and pot. There’s a commune, more or less; the tiniest awareness of gay issues; free love; but mostly lots of alcohol and passed out drunks. This is very time period, very barfly and very non-sensitive. Even more disheartening, though Milo is aware of his shortcomings, he’ll continue to choose the booze every time. It is a time and character portrait, but is as depressing as only a dead-end bar can be.
Given a choice between watching an dysfunctional alcoholic careen through bars and slums in a feeble effort to find a missing brother, all in the hopes of getting laid by a beautiful woman, or following a functional alcoholic as he attempts to help a beautiful hooker leave her john (Scudder, Eight Million Ways to Die), I know which one I’d choose.