A moment of silence for one of the one hit wonders: James Crumley

Old friend Knox sent along word that James Crumley died last week.

James Crumley, a critically acclaimed crime novelist whose drug-infused, alcohol-soaked, profanity-laced, breathtakingly violent books swept the hard-boiled detective from the Raymond Chandler era into an amoral, utterly dissolute, apocalyptic post-Vietnam universe, died on Wednesday in Missoula, Mont. He was 68 and lived in Missoula.

As someone who read a lot of his work, I think saying he “swept the hard-boiled detective from the Raymond Chandler era into an amoral, utterly dissolute, apocalyptic post-Vietnam universe,” is a huge overstatement. A lot of other writers did this and had a much wider impact. Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers is just the first of many that comes to mind.

Crumley had his moment in the early 1980s following the publication of his novel “The Last Good Kiss.” It was published in the Viking Paperback Originals series that made a splash with Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City” and made the market for the larger-format trade paperbacks.

“Kiss” is an exciting mix of alcohol, drugs, self-loathing and a brutish murder mystery. First sentence — and it’s a beaut — “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 Sonora, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

Sort of Tom Waits meets Bukowski meets Hunter Thompson with a good leavening of Chandler. That book inspired a lot of writers, including Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, whom I love. (What? You haven’t read King Suckerman or The Sweet Forever? Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with you.) It even inspired me to write what is surely one of the most widely unpublished novels of the last century.

Trouble is that is nearly all there is for Crumley. His two earlier books were OK, although his Vietnam novel — One to Count Cadence — is minor compared to much else that was written about on the topic. (See Dog Soldiers, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Philip Caputo’s autobiography A Rumor of War and the novel Fields of Fire by James Webb, now the junior senator from Virginia.) The follow-up, Dancing Bear, was good but too similar in style and story to Kiss for me to think of it as much more than a slight sequel. A decade later he wrote The Mexican Tree Duck which got some acclaim but, like the later work of Thompson and Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), it felt like he was going through the motions. His heroes stopped developing, his villains and women got more cartoonish. Perhaps the four novels he wrote after that were better, I don’t know.

Like Exley and Thompson, Crumley had a debilitating substance abuse issue that I think robbed us all of what could have been something extraordinary.

The best epitaph is from Richard Hugo’s wonderful poem, Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg, from which Crumley got the title for Kiss:

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
.

It’s a good piece. I suggest reading the rest.

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