In his excellent survey of American crime fiction Into the Badlands, John Williams describes James Crumley as ‘the Hemingway of the detective novel… a big bearded bear-like man who loves to drink and raise hell and talk about literature.‘ It’s a portrait borne out by the chapter in which Williams follows Crumley from bar to bar in his hometown of Missoula, Montana, through a succession of late nights and painful morning afters.
The interview eventually happens under the weight of a mighty hangover, but Crumley is on good form, talking about both his own work and crime fiction in general. Crumley’s first crime novel, The Wrong Case, was initially written as an attempt to beat writer’s block, and make some money quickly – but even then, it demonstrated to Crumley the potential of the genre. ‘I no longer not only do not have the notion that the serious novel is more important than the detective novel,‘ he says to Williams, some ten years after The Last Good Kiss was first published, ‘I can’t remember why I ever had that notion. Must have been crazed, ignorant or stupid to have fallen prey to the cheapest kind of intellectual snobbery.‘
Well said. In Crumley’s hands the crime novel transcends much of what has gone before, and The Last Good Kiss has been described as the best private eye novel ever written. It certainly starts off very memorably:
‘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.’
The book’s narrator is C.W. Sughrue, part-time strip club barman and part-time private investigator. When we first meet him, he has been employed by Trahearne’s ex-wife to track down the alcoholic writer. The trail leads Sughrue from state to state, and from bar to bar. ‘Twice I hired private planes to get ahead of the old man, and twice he failed to show up until after I had left. I liked his taste in bars but I was in and out of so many that they all began to seem like the same endless bar.’ When Sughrue finally catches up with him, there is a fight which ends with Trahearne being hospitalised, and Sughrue is left waiting for his quarry to recover until he can be taken home.
It is during this lull that Sughrue is persuaded by the bar owner to search for her daughter. Betty Sue Flowers has been missing for ten years, having stepped out of her boyfriend’s car at a San Francisco stop light and disappeared into the crowd. Sughrue isn’t hopeful – ‘Even a year is usually too long, but ten years is forever‘ – and the fee is paltry, but he still takes the job.
On the surface Sughrue is your typical hard-boiled character – a drinker and a fighter, and not afraid to threaten someone to get what he wants. But this would be to ignore the depth that Crumley gives him, and Sughrue is an engaging protagonist. His fatal flaw is the unshakeable empathy that he has for the people around him, a result of his (and Crumley’s) dirt poor Texas upbringing. Whilst the temptation to drink himself stupid is almost irresistible (and there is a lot of alcohol consumed in this book; anyone thinking about a Withnail and I-style drinking game should proceed with caution), Sughrue shows remarkable commitment to his job. ‘I get paid for finding folks, not losing myself.‘
As Sughrue looks for Betty Sue he learns more about her past – her involvement in pornographic films, and time spent living in a hippy commune – and his investigation changes. In particular Sughrue believes that he is somehow being manipulated – ‘Sometimes the people I think I’m hunting for don’t turn out to be the people I find’ – and the reader increasingly realises that his quest cannot end well. When it does, it finishes with one of the most unnerving passages of dialogue I’ve read in a long time; and one that still lingers in my brain several weeks later, like a particularly virulent hangover.
Alongside his characters, Crumley does a remarkable job of depicting the society in which they move, a post-Vietnam world with the hippy dream beginning to die. The Last Good Kiss is ultimately concerned with how responsible we are for one other; and what happens when that responsibility is ignored or (equally dangerously) too keenly pursued. It’s not a subject often found in crime novels, and is a powerful reminder of what the genre is capable of in the right hands.