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You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.
    Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg (Richard F. Hugo)


As the story goes, the poet Richard Hugo was the one who mentioned to James Crumley--at that time the author of only a barely noticed war novel--that he wished he could write a sentence like Raymond Chandler. Supposedly, Crumley had never read the great detective novelist. But he proceeded to become widely-hailed as Chandler's heir, a Chandler for the West, a post-Vietnam Chandler, etc. It's entirely fitting then that this book, his masterpiece, takes its title from a Hugo poem but also consciously invokes a Chandler title: The Long Goodbye.

Crumley himself described his debt to the master, though noted too the difference:
“I always introduce my work by explaining that I am a bastard child of Raymond Chandler – without his books, my books would be completely different. We cover some of the same ground, his dark streets in LA, my twisted highways in the mountain west. But because of the events surrounding the Vietnam War, my detectives are not as comfortable with traditional morality as Philip Marlowe seems to be.”
Crumley was clearly working from early Chandler, whereas someone like Robert B. Parker represents the late domesticated Chandler of Poodle Springs--more Thin Man than Sam Spade, if we consider that other progenitor of the private eye genre.

Crumley eventually wound up with two characters who he alternated from novel to novel, bringing them together in one. Milo Milodragovitch debuted first, in The Wrong Case. C.W. Shugrue was introduced in The Last Good Kiss with one of the most memorable opening lines in literature:
“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
Trahearne is a sort of Papa Hemingway/Norman Mailer type, an aging famous author trying so hard to act tough that he's an unholy mess. His ex-wife has hired Shugrue to track down the wayward drunk, but when Trahearne ends up getting shot in the rear they have to stay around the "ramshackle joint" for a few days before heading home to Meriwether, Montana. In the meantime, the owner of the bar, Rosie, offers him $87 to find her daughter, who ran away ten years ago.

Though there's little hope after that much time has passed, Shugrue undertakes an increasingly obsessive quest to find Betty Sue Flowers, Fireball Roberts and Abrahan Trahearne in tow:
"You sure this is what you want to do, old man?" I asked.

"Son, this is all I've ever wanted to do," he said, still grinning through his pain. "Hit the road, right? Move it on. And here I am wandering around America with an alcoholic bulldog, a seedy private dick, and a working quart of Wild Turkey." He reached into the glove box, took a nip, and passed the quart to me. "But don't call me old man. That's all I ask."

"Don't call me a seedy dick."
Their subsequent adventure is somewhat Gonzo-esque, which has earned Crumley nearly as many comparisons to Hunter S. Thompson as to Chandler. But that's mostly a matter of some drug use and whoring around, which you wouldn't have found in the noir of the '40s. Shugrue is the more violent and brutal of Crumley's two heroes, but he's still pretty much a moralist, as Trahearne points out. He just tends not to be judgmental of the mistakes folks have made in their pasts. Not least because he committed an atrocity when he was in Vietnam.

As the story folds back on itself and the odd relationships among the characters come into focus, Crumley veers into Ross MacDonald territory. Which is a very good place to be when you're paying homage to the great detectives. All in all, he manages to borrow from a number of sources but still tell the story in a distinctive voice, shift the geographical setting enough that he's considered the father of the Western detectives who followed, and update the moral and ethical quandries enough to not feel too old-fashioned.

Sadly, even as Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald had a difficult time being accepted as true literary figures, Crumley had the misfortune of being treated as if he weren't writing pulp fiction. His books tended to come out in Vintage trade versions and the like, rather than in the mass-market paperbacks that might have won him an audience of air travelers and the like. It was that as much as anything that kept him a cult phenomenon rather than a popular best-seller. That and the leisurely pace at which he produced new novels.

His influence on the generation that followed was undeniable though. He may be every detective writers favorite peer and The Last Good Kiss holds a central and well-deserved position in the pulp noir pantheon.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Private Eyes
James Crumley Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: JamesCrumley.com
    -WIKIPEDIA: James Crumley
    -FILMOGRAPHY: James Crumley (IMDB)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: The Last Good Kiss
    -James Crumley Papers (1965-1990) (The Whitliff Collections, Southwestern Writers Collection)
    -ESSAY: The Last Gentleman: A friend and student remembers Richard Yates. (James Crumley, April/May 2001, Boston Review)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of The Right Madness by James Crumley
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: A Novelist's Hard-boiled Take On Big Sky Country (Fresh Air, 6/26/97, NPR)
    -OBIT: James Crumley, Crime Novelist, Is Dead at 68 (MARGALIT FOX, September 19, 2008 , NY Times)
    -OBIT: Local author James Crumley dies at 68 (The Missoulian, 9/18/08)
    -OBIT: James Crumley dies at 68; author of poetic 'hard-boiled detective' books (LA Times, September 20, 2008)
    -OBIT: James Crumley dies (Peggy McMullen September 19, 2008, The Oregonian)
    -OBIT: James Crumley; Inspired Generation of Crime Writers: James Crumley, 68, wrote 11 novels but was best known for his 1978 book, "The Last Good Kiss." (Patricia Sullivan, 9/19/08, Washington Post)
    -OBIT: James Crumley: James Crumley, an American crime writer, died on September 17th, aged 68 (Economist.com, Sep 29th 2008)
    -OBIT: James Crumley: Crime writer whose low-life novels were infused with a rugged wit (Independent, 3 October 2008)
    -OBIT Cult crime novelist writer James Crumley, 68 (Dennis McLellan, 9/21/09, Seattle Times)
    -OBIT: James Crumley: Crime writer with a cult status hailed as Chandler's heir (Mike Ripley, 22 September 2008, The Guardian)
    -TRIBUTE: James Crumley Checks Out (Robert Ferrigno, 9/18/08)
    -TRIBUTE: A toast to the late crime writer Jim Crumley (Eddie Muller, October 5, 2008, SF Chronicle)
    -TRIBUTE: James Crumley, 1939-2008: Friends and colleagues look back, in their own words, on the life of a Missoula legend. (Missoula Independent, 9/25/08)
    -TRIBUTE: 10,000 Barstools Ago: A tribute to the celebrated author and crime novelist James Crumley, who died at the age of 68 on September 17, 2008. Crumley was a native of Three Rivers, Texas. (Tom Zigal, October 2008, Texas Monthly)
    -TRIBUTE: The Mystery Writer (Patricia Sullivan, September 19, 2008, Washington Post)
    -TRIBUTE: The Last Good Detective Writer: Remembering Jim Crumley (Dick Holland, November 14, 2008, Texas Observer)
    -TRIBUTE: Friends recall Crumley's life, writing (VINCE DEVLIN, 9/19/08, The Missoulian)
    -TRIBUTE: Goodbye to Jim Crumley (Maxim Jakubowski, 23 September 2008, The Guardian)
    -TRIBUTE: Writer Jim Crumley: A remembrance (David McCumber, September 20, 2008, Seattle PI)
    -OBIT: James Crumley: crime writer (Times of London, 9/25/09)
    -TRIBUTE: James Crumley (Max Allan Collins Monday, Dec. 29, 2008, TIME)
    -TRIBUTE: No Train to Glory -- James Crumley, R.I.P. (Jan Herman, 9/19/08, Huffington Post)
    -ESSAY: Bright Lights, No City - Montana's the Literary Capital of the Country and Its Authors Have a Best Seller to Prove It (CHRISTY PORTER, March 19, 1989, LA Times)
    -INTERVIEW: James Crumley: poet of the night (Excerpts from the interview by Lynn Kaczmarek in the August/September 2001 issue of Mystery News)
    -ESSAY: Feminism in James Crumley's Whores (Karen Tanguma, 9/09/08, Associated Content)
    -INFO: James Crumley (Stop You're Killing Me)
    -INFO: Milo Milodragovitch: Created by James Crumley (Kevin Burton Smith, Thrilling Detective)
    -INFO: C.W. Sughrue: Created by James Crumley (Kevin Burton Smith, Thrilling Detective)
    -ARCHIVES: James Crumley (Austin Chronicle)
    -ARCHIVES: James Crumley (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (Francis M. Nevins, 10001 Midnights)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Good Kiss (Harpers)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Good Kiss (Chris Lott, Cosmopoetica)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Good Kiss (Steve, The Mystery File)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Speak softly and carry a big machine gun: a review of The Mexican Tree Duck and One to Count Cadence by James Crumley (Peter Guttridge, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Dancing Bear by James Ctrumley (Elmore Leonard, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Mexican Tree Duck By James Crumley (Marilyn Stasio, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Mexican Tree Duck (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Mexican Tree Duck (Bob Shacochis, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Mexican Tree Duck (Tom De Haven, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Bordersnakes by James Crumley (Jay Russell, Tangled Web)
    -REVIEW: of The Final Country by James Crumley (Marilyn Stasio, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Final Country (Will Cohu, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Final Country (Maddy Van Hertbruggen, Reviewing the Evidence)
    -REVIEW: of The Final Country (Russell James, Shots)
    -REVIEW: of the Right Madness by James Crumley (Ron Powers, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Right Madness (Jesse Sublett, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Right Madness (Dan Webster, The Spokesman Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Right Madness (Patrick Anderson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of the Right Madness (John Holt, California Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Right Madness (PJ Coldren, Reviewing the Evidence)
    -REVIEW: of The Right Madness (Sharon Katz, Reviewing the Evidence)
    -REVIEW: of The Right Madness (BookList)
    -REVIEW: of The Right Madness (Sam Allis, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Liquor, lawlessness, and loose, loose ladies: Jefferson Chase gets in to frontier territory with hard-boiled crime writer James Crumley (Jefferson Chase, Whiskey Magazine)

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