James Crumley’s two brilliant novelsApril 13, 2014
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The Last Good Kiss, written in 1978, is a novel many fans of crime fiction have never heard of. The novel did not sell particularly well, nor did Crumley’s six other novels. But three of today’s most notable and best-selling crime fiction authors – Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, and George Pelacanos – cite The Last Good Kiss as a major influence.
What is it about this relatively obscure book that warrants such accolades? Certainly not its plot; the storyline of The Last Good Kiss meanders and becomes convoluted before reaching a sketchy resolution that leaves many readers scratching their heads.
Also, I must assume the above authors were not put off by Crumley’s love affair with beer and whiskey; if ever a novel could be described as booze-soaked, The Last Good Kiss would be it. Scarcely a page goes by without reference to alcohol consumption. The lead character, private eye C.W. Sughrue, is a heavy drinker, as is his counterpart, Abraham Trahearne, an alcoholic novelist of past acclaim.
The story begins, suitably, in a bar, where Sughrue finds Trahearne, after being hired by Trahearne’s ex-wife to track him down. It seems Trahearne has a penchant for wandering drunk binges, and the ex-wife is concerned for his health. Sughrue takes a liking to the older man, a pairing born of their mutual thirst. They team up and travel the American West, swilling liquor and searching for a missing woman. Between their considerable bar time, they tour California, then head north to Montana, and then Sughrue drives out to Denver, beer can in hand, where he does battle with some mobbed up pornographers.
In the end, Sughrue finds the missing woman, who is not who she seems to be. I’ll resist further comment to avoid spoiling the story.
If this does not sound like an impressive plot, that would be a correct conclusion. So, again, why is this book worth discussion?
Answer: voice and characterization.
I’ve heard it said that some writers have only a limited number of good books in them. I believe Crumley had two: The Wrong Case, and The Last Good Kiss. Both of these novels offer extraordinary character development, and are told in a unique, powerful, and convincing voice.
An author’s voice is something that can be hard to describe, much like describing an individual’s personality. But once you experience the voice firsthand, its power (or lack thereof, for many writers) becomes apparent. When I read The Wrong Case, the predecessor to The Last Good Kiss, I knew early on that Crumley was writing of a world that he knew intimately. The bars of Montana and the roads of the Western states are what Crumley loved and understood. His affection for this roughhewn domain is deep and profound.
Crumley’s writing allows us to experience his world through his eyes. His passion for the characters and the places he writes of is indelibly stamped on every page of his two great novels. When he describes the sad but happy alcoholics, the destroyed lives, the open road, and the dive bars, it is an immersive experience. You feel like you are in each scene with C.W. Sughrue, sitting next to him at the bar, or in his passenger seat, an open beer between your legs.
Crumley’s voice manifests itself in each opinion expressed, each bit of perspective uttered, and every irreverent, cavalier comment. The profanity, the sardonic wit, the crude references, it all speaks in a singular voice, painting one man’s vision of an American culture where almost any transgression can be forgiven for the price of a drink.
As a protagonist, C.W. Sughrue is no doubt Crumley’s alter ego. This is what makes Sughrue such an authentic and convincing character. Crumley himself was a man enamored with bars and booze, and in creating Crumley, he simply transfused his own blood into his literary creation. But, the protagonist in The Wrong Case is not CW Sughrue; it’s a character named Milo Milodragovitch. In interviews, Crumley tried to differentiate the two, pointing out certain nuances. I never bought into to this; Sughrue and Milodragovitch are essentially the same character. There may be cosmetic differences between them, but they talk, behave, and see the world identically.
The supporting characters in The Wrong Case and The Last Good Kiss are also genuine, and based on people Crumley knew during his life. I spoke with him on this topic in the early 90’s. He mentioned that many of his characters in the above books were direct sketches of people he’d met. I also asked him about a character in a later novel, one that I felt was weak. He said the character in question was just piecemealed together, a composite of many individuals. Clearly, this process created a less effective character. On a grander scale, it indicated a weakening of Crumley’s voice; he wrote brilliantly when sourcing directly from his life experiences, but when he moved outside of that arena, his power was diminished.
This is not to say that Crumley’s other novels were poor. But they did not reach the heights of The Wrong Case or The Last Good Kiss. His later books were well written and had their moments, but often left me with the impression that he was stretching, trying to recapture a magic that was tapped out, like an empty beer keg.
James Crumley died in 2008 after 69 years of hard living. He left us a unique body of work in the detective/crime fiction genre. The Wrong Case and The Last Good Kiss stand alone, extraordinary examples of voice and character, and testament to a brilliant author who continues to influence some of our best writers today.
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