Milo Dragovitch is a burned out private security officer living in Montana, doing blow, screwing, and getting drunk and feeling sorry for himself. Ex-wives, dead parents with money, and romanticizing his drunken lifestyle fill his days. He gets a call from a rich old lady from his past. She’s been spying on the neighborhood and has noticed a man and a woman who meet in their parked cars. Who are they? What are they doing? That she pays a large fee for such an apparently pointless gig tips off our hero that Things Are Not What They Seem…
DANCING BEAR is one of the too-few novels left by the late James Crumley. I’d say I’m surprised he isn’t better known, but Crumley’s are the kinds of sterling heroes or silly anti-heroes who’re in much demand these days. Milo isn’t someone to admire, not even in the “so bad he’s good” way. He’s the kind of half-competent slob you could see in a bar, a man who has some experience with guns and violence and who knows how to use those skills he learned in the military. Milo has an outdoors man’s gruff attitude toward the rich despoilers of nature and an independent’s attitude toward his guns, his drugs and the women who all want to hop in the sack with his aging carcass.
The appeal in Crumley’s work isn’t in the plots, but the attitude. His burned-out heroes are beautiful losers, romanticized druggies, and not everyone’s cup of tea. The criminal stories are laid out slowly–his novels amble for the first third or so. In DANCING BEAR, Milo is involved in a store robbery, and some hijinks with a comedy-relief old dude. But then things get serious. When one of the people Milo follows comes to a bad end, Milo is suddenly in danger. I was surprised at just how deeply involved I was in Milo’s predicament–“Now what the hell is he gonna do?” It’s very cleverly done, getting us on Milo’s side so we’re just as panicky as he is when things turn deadly serious.
Crumley’s are cozy mysteries for nasty people, taking place in the world Crumley knew and lived (he was a notorious cokehead). He wrote about loving Montana, but it’s not very convincing when his part of it consisted of sad bars and not a lot to do besides snort coke and think about failure. Taking on P.I. jobs to make spending money is just a way to pass the time, but if Milo is trying to be a Hammett character he’s still got a Chandler streak, despite himself. He wants his old lady client to be okay, and he regrets it when someone does something that requires him to respond with violence. He’s the perfect alcoholic hero, a passive-aggressive soldier.
He didn’t write enough for my taste, but Crumley left a handful of enjoyable books. DANCING BEAR isn’t my favorite of his–that’d be THE LAST GOOD KISS–but it’s a good place to start if you’re tired of the same old P.I. fiction.