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BOOK REVIEW

Brutal and funny, 'Right Madness' does no wrong

The Right Madness, By James Crumley, Viking, 304 pp, $24.95

C.W. Sughrue, that refreshing breath of foul air, is back. He's the private eye out of Meriwether, Mont., who hangs in there, in his own words, ''like hair on a biscuit."

In ''The Right Madness," James Crumley's great creation may be eligible for AARP membership, but he remains every bit as wild as he was in Crumley's 1978 classic ''The Last Good Kiss," when he left a trail of mayhem across the West. He also must be one of the few over-50 hired guns in this age of recovery still abusing drugs and alcohol with brio, free of any discernible guilt. For any number of reasons, you don't want to mess with this man.

Crumley adds pop to his women, too. Take Claudia: ''She threw a twenty on the bar, shouted to the bartender, 'A double tequila shooter with a Corona back, and get my friend something festive.' "

Any Crumley book is a welcome addition to the crime canon, and this one is no exception. He traffics in humor, high and low, as he mines the lethal behavior along the seedy highway towns of the West. The pages are suffused with benders, violence, and psychosis. Crumley will always favor outrage over subtlety, which may wear thin for some. But there's no one out there writing like him.

And, thank God, at least he's not postmodern. Sughrue has his demons, bred during ugly business in Vietnam, but they'll never be mistaken for angst. It will be a cold day in hell before he enters therapy, even though his wife has left him. He would probably treat a metrosexual, once apprised of the meaning of the word, as a hunter might a woodchuck.

Sughrue always seems to end up killing people while rescuing friends and family from seriously bad guys. He just can't help it. This time, he succumbs to the entreaties of his best friend, Mac, a shrink, to find out who among seven of Mac's patients in analysis stole the minidiscs with confidential information on all of them. Blackmail? Who knows? They're all loony, one way or another.

Then folks start dying strange deaths. The wife of one patient jumps off a balcony with a rope around her neck and literally loses her head. Another, naked save a pair of black lace gloves, puts both hands in a band saw. (Did I mention that Crumley traffics gleefully in gore?) Another dies when the balcony on which she is standing collapses. And so forth. Sughrue being Sughrue, he has the karmic luck to witness all of this.

These events drive him to drink too much alone. He does so in front of the television at one point, and ''watched the set as stupidly as if it were a powerful fire."

Mac disappears. Probably dead, but you never know. His wife, Lorna, holes up in a Las Vegas hotel and commits strange acts while on a big old cocaine binge that lasts for days. The FBI appears. Sughrue takes another cosmic road trip south that ends up in El Paso before looping back toward Montana. He maintains his standards on the road: ''I hate a motel without a bar."

Along the way, he runs into Larise, a massive Ukrainian nymphomaniac who beats up her husband regularly.

There are stone-cold killers, the odd transgender person, cowards galore, and a piece of evil on two legs -- the usual gamut of Crumley merry pranksters.

The plot eases out of Start and then bucks and shifts and takes you all over Robin Hood's barn. It's best left alone here, but the ending should please you.

''The Right Madness," like all of Crumley's books, is not for the faint of heart. But for the rest of us, there's only one thing to say: Welcome back, C.W.

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