The Last Good Detective Writer

Remembering Jim Crumley.

James Crumley, 1989

“Alcohol was not invented by accident. It was invented by people who needed a drink.” -James Crumley, interviewed in Paris, France, 1988.

When the Texas-born novelist James Crumley died at age 68 on September 17, newspaper obituaries in Los Angeles, Washington, New York, and London all mentioned one of his sentences. The sentence was not the only notable string of words this fine writer composed, but devotees of his work often point to it as a landmark in modern detective fiction. It is the opening of his 1978 novel The Last Good Kiss:

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.

This auspicious beginning is in the voice of an itinerant Montana private eye named C.W. Sughrue (“Shoog as in sugar … rue as in rue the goddamn day”), and it sets the tone for the lyrically described mayhem that follows. Sughrue starts out looking for one missing person and ends up following a different one all over the Mountain West, where he encounters enough tough-guy treachery, venality, mendacity, violence, and heartbreak to satisfy any fan of Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald. The Last Good Kiss sold only a few thousand copies on release, but after its publication Crumley was a made man in the world of hard-boiled writers and their hardcore fans.

Crumley was a Texas expat by choice, living for decades in Missoula, Montana, a medium-sized university town full of writers and bars. In short, a perfect place for Jim Crumley, a companionable fellow who was known to lift a glass. His unlikely road to national and international fame (but never fortune) began in Three Rivers and Mathis, small South Texas communities where his father worked on oil rigs and his mother waited tables. He later said that his father was a gentle man and that his mother was forceful and violent-a woman who insisted that he go to church, but avoided it herself because she couldn’t afford Sunday clothes.

Crumley played some high school and college football (“I grew up learning to run into people at high speeds,” he once said). He had the marks of an offensive lineman: a rolling gait, enormously strong arms and shoulders, and really bad knees. After high school, he attended college at Georgia Tech on a Navy ROTC scholarship and quit to join the Army. After getting a degree at what was then Texas A&I, he entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he read Faulkner and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky for the first time. His student fiction project became One to Count Cadence, a fine war novel based on his Army experiences in the Philippines. Crumley had quickly invented himself as a serious writer.

This was in 1969. One to Count Cadence was not totally ignored, but there were a lot of good books just then, and a lot of great music and engrossing politics, so Crumley’s first novel was a bit lost in the shuffle. To make ends meet, he began teaching at western universities, including Colorado State, Reed College, and UT-El Paso. In his free time he loved to drive and hit small-town bars as he found them. “D&D” he called it: driving and drinking. Along the way, he made a lot of literary friends. Austin novelist Tom Zigal lived in the Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he has photographs of Crumley posed with literary pals who had converged on San Francisco from all over. One of Zigal’s old snapshots shows Crumley standing with a motley group of future notables, including Max Crawford, Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver, and Chuck Kinder (the model for Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys.)

Crumley had read Dostoevsky, but not the great detective novelists, until Montana poet Richard Hugo confessed to Jim that he wished he could write a sentence like Raymond Chandler. (Hugo later tried with his own detective novel, Death and the Good Life.)

Crumley finally picked up some Chandler off a paperback rack in Guadalajara, Mexico, and was soon hooked on the clear moral imperatives and stylistic immediacy of Chandler and the other masterful Los Angeles detective novelist, Ross Macdonald. Crumley embarked on his first detective book.

This was The Wrong Case, published in 1975, which begins with words of wisdom uttered by Macdonald’s private eye, Lew Archer: “Never go to bed with a woman who has more troubles than you do.”

The Wrong Case features Crumley’s first detective, a kindly and sometimes drunken Montana private eye named Milo Milodragovitch, who conducts not much business on the fourth floor of a building named after his grandfather. Milo spends his days mainly looking out his window at the mountains and waiting until his favorite barmaids start work at his favorite bars. He is also waiting to turn 52, when he will inherit his family’s fortune. The Wrong Case begins in classic Chandler-Macdonald-Chinatown style, with a redhead timidly knocking on Milo’s office door. This, of course, leads to complications, some of them sordid, and to many tough-guy bons mots, as when one character turns to Milo in a bar and says, “Let’s get drunk and be somebody”-a line that Alcoholics Anonymous should give pride of cautionary place in its literature.

Crumley wrote most of The Last Good Kiss (the title taken from a line of poetry by Hugo) while he was teaching at Reed College, a small, liberal arts campus in Portland, Oregon. There he was a charismatic figure who gathered groups of bright undergraduates to demonstrate the attractions of D&D up and down the Oregon and Washington coasts.

The Last Good Kiss is the book everyone noticed, the book that was warmly reviewed in Newsweek and raved about in Rolling Stone by Greil Marcus. After the opening line about the alcoholic bulldog (apparently based on fact), Sughrue finds and loses the writer (based on Hugo) he’s been hired to find, in the process getting sucked into the search for a missing young woman named Betty Sue Flowers. Something of the tone of Sughrue’s quest through the hard-bitten West shines through in this passage about Sughrue’s search for the writer Trahearne:

I found myself chasing ghosts across gray mountain passes, then down green valleys riddled with the snows of late spring. I took to sleeping in the same motel beds he had, trying to dream him up, took to getting drunk in the same bars, hoping for a whiskey vision. They came all right, those bleak motel dreams, those whiskey visions, but they were out of my own drifting past. As for Trahearne, I didn’t have a clue. Once I even humped the same sad young whore in a trailer-complex out in the Nevada desert. She was a frail, skinny little bit out of Cincinnati, and she had brought her gold-mine out west, thinking perhaps it might assay better, but her shaft had collapsed, her veins petered out, and the tracks on her skin looked like they had been dug with a rusty pick. After I had slaked too many nights of aimless barstool lust amid her bones, I asked her again about Trahearne. She didn’t say anything at first, she just lay on her crushed bed-sheets, hitting on a joint.”You reckon they actually went up there to the moon?” she asked seriously.

Milo returns in Crumley’s third detective novel, Dancing Bear, and he’s down on his luck. This time his client is an old girlfriend of his father’s named Sarah Weddington (Austin readers will appreciate many of Crumley’s character names). Since The Wrong Case, Milo has lost his office and drifts through the days drinking shots of peppermint schnapps and propping up his flagging energy with huge quantities of cocaine. Weddington soon disappears, but it becomes clear that Milo is the hunted one in this gripping and somewhat confusing thriller with an environmental twist. The Wrong Case was written in El Paso, one of Crumley’s favorite cities, when money was short. Crumley had a habit of marrying, and the alimony checks were already starting to stack up.

This brings us to 1983. At this point, Crumley is large in reputation, especially in France, but still relatively poor in American dollars. His three Montana detective books had changed the genre, and Hollywood recognized it, so he spent the next several years working on screenplays. The Last Good Kiss is thought to be one of the most optioned novels of its era.

Then there were no new detective books for 10 years, partly because of an intervening attempt at a serious (non-genre) novel about Texas with the working title The Muddy Fork. This one he burned in a fireplace after 800 pages.

That’s about the time I met Crumley. He was in San Marcos for the dedication of the Southwestern Writers Collection in 1992. I was curator of the collection, and at a party I told him we would be interested in any manuscripts he had kept or any other kind of archival material. A couple of years later, I picked up the phone, and there was Crumley’s gravelly voice saying, “Hi, Dick. You remember telling me you’d clean out my closet for me? I’m about to get married for the fifth time to a nice girl named Martha Elizabeth, and I need to make some room. You can have everything, all of my divorce decrees, except the fourth one-I’d better hold on to it.”

Crumley’s closet was packed with paper, including several drafts of that famous first sentence from The Last Good Kiss (Jim said he was the kind of writer who had to be totally satisfied with what he had before he could move forward). On a messy-writer scale of 1 (very messy) to 10 (pristine), Crumley’s closet was about a 6.5. After we loaded up a bunch of shipping boxes, Jim seemed to become preoccupied with his wedding plans, so he called a couple of friends to help entertain me. This resulted in my going to a softball game played by Crumley’s team, The Montana Review of Books, and meeting the Louisiana mystery writer James Lee Burke, who spent his summers in Missoula, where he now lives. Burke asked if I’d like to accompany him to his favorite trout stream with a visiting European book journalist named Pierre. I said of course, and when Pierre learned that I’d been in Crumley’s closet, he told me Jim had been one of his best guests on a literary radio show he did in Switzerland.

“So, Richard,” he said, “you are a fan of the roman noir?” I grunted that I was, but it seemed to me that the French were the truest fans of Crumley’s America, a fictional place where the violent and the sordid dominate everyday life, and it’s up to damaged heroes like Milo and Sughrue to make things right.

Crumley’s friend Zigal is a veteran of mystery-lit conferences, where fans of the genre get to meet the authors. He recounts that by the mid-1980s or so, Crumley had become a hero to a younger generation of hard-boiled writers. Zigal calls them the “noir boys,” and says Crumley was always polite, but puzzled, as they surrounded him at hotel bars. Perhaps he perceived that few of this group would have gone out for football at Mathis or Texas A&I.

The noir boys wanted more books, and maybe because of financial exigencies, Jim Crumley obliged with four more detective novels. These were The Mexican Tree Duck, published in 1993, Bordersnakes in 1996, The Final Country in 2001, and The Right Madness in 2005.

In The Mexican Tree Duck, Sughrue returns for the first time since The Last Good Kiss, and in Bordersnakes, Sughrue and Milo partner up. Milo has lost his $3 million inheritance and travels from Montana to El Paso to enlist Sughrue’s help, only to find that his old acquaintance has been shot and left to die by Chicano thugs. The rest of the book is consumed by a complicated, cross-country chase that involves Texas crime syndicates, the savings and loan scandal, and a sinister general who played a part in the Iran-Contra scandal. Some critics saw this as energetic plotting, and some saw it as a mess.

The Final Country is set entirely in Texas, a homecoming of a sort. This is Milo’s book, and although it seems a little strange to see him plunked down in the Texas Hill Country instead of Montana, he’s the same partly gentle, partly violent cocaine-snorter as he was back in Dancing Bear. The plot doesn’t matter any more than it does in Chandler’s The Big Sleep (Chandler famously couldn’t remember who done it when he consulted on the movie). What counts are the sentences, and the voice.

If The Final Country was Crumley’s swan song to Texas, there was a coda of sorts titled The Right Madness, in which Milo says his last goodbye to a fictionalized Missoula. There was a tremendous outpouring of affection in Missoula upon Crumley’s death, which had been long foretold after years of heavy drinking and hard living. The town’s many writers remembered his loyalty and friendship and his surprisingly gentle nature. Crumley’s favorite Missoula bar set aside his favorite seat as a sort of shrine.

Though Crumley had traveled to Austin frequently in his last years, the lasting memories stretched further back. Several friends remembered a party at my house when Jim was in town touring with The Mexican Tree Duck. Our neighbor across the street had been a student of Crumley’s at Reed, and some local mystery writers were there to see the great man. What everyone remembers was a scene in the kitchen. Tom Zigal accidentally spilled a drink down Crumley’s shirt when he hugged him, and Crumley took the shirt off because it was wet. Stripped down to his undershirt, his large physique was truly impressive. On his right arm he was sporting a brand new tattoo of a duck. Soon enough, Austin’s lovers of the roman noir were lined up in the kitchen, each one kissing the tattoo in turn.

Crumley grinned a tight grin and tolerated the drunken homage. I guess he was used to that kind of thing.

Dick Holland is a senior lecturer in the Liberal Arts Honors Program at the University of Texas. Starting in January, he is teaching a class titled “The Mississippi River From Mark Twain to Hurricane Katrina.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST