When he died, Crumley was surrounded by family and friends, including his wife, Martha Elizabeth, and Missoula author and county emergency services director Bob Reid.“We were friends in the fullest sense,” Reid said. “I admired him for many things. He always kind of had this off-kilter way of looking at things–different than what you would imagine. He had a real hard-nosed exterior, yet at the same time he was patient and understanding of many different things and many different people.”
Missoula author Neil McMahon said of Crumley: “A huge man in terms of his heart and soul. He influenced me greatly and many others. He has a tremendous fan base and admirers all over the world.”Crumley has published 11 novels, taught at universities across the country and worked in Hollywood for several years. Famous for his hard-boiled mysteries, his works include “One Count to Cadence,” “The Last Good Kiss,” “The Wrong Case,” “The Mexican Tree Duck,” “Bordersnakes,” “The Final Country,” and most recently, “The Right Madness.”
One of the earliest detective novels I remember reading–more than once–was Crumley’s The Wrong Case (1975), which introduced alcoholic, sometime private eye Milo Milodragovitch. Had Crumley never written another detective novel in his life, I’d still remember him for that Chandleresque one. But then a few years later, I picked up The Last Good Kiss (1978) and was hooked again by the first short paragraph, a paragraph that has become an inspirational touchstone for later crime novelists:
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.
That latter book introduced a second Montana gumshoe, C.W. Sughrue, who was really the flip side of the same coin. (If memory serves, The Last Good Kiss was originally supposed to feature Milo, but some arcane publishing deal compelled Crumley to rename–if not modify significantly–his protagonist.) Over time, however, the two men showed some of their dissimilarities: Milo was a Korean War vet, Sughrue did his service during the Vietnam War and was court-martialed for killing an entire Vietnamese family (the crime was unintentional, of course); Milo was the kinder and smarter of the two, Sughrue the more violent and mean. Crumley once said that “Milo is my good side, Sughrue’s the bad.” But the characters got along well enough that in 1996’s Bordersnakes, they teamed up to go gallivanting around the West and into Mexico in search of an embezzling banker and a hit man. There was always lots of road travel in Crumley’s books, leading critics to conclude (not too brilliantly) that he’d been influenced by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
As Crumley got older, I thought his skills dropped off a bit and his stories became confusing at times. I was saddened by the mess of 2005’s The Right Madness, a Sughrue novel, but in reviewing that book for Amazon.com, I wrote: “Crumley’s detective stories have always been stronger on character development, high-caliber action, literary wit, and lyrical exposition than on meticulous plot construction.” He could put more punch into his storytelling than five other guys, and he had a poetic edge to his prose that wasn’t lost at all on careful readers.
There are plenty of tributes to Crumley appearing in the blogosphere today, including a fine and personal one from Duane Swierczynski. Laura Lippman has posted the transcript of an interview she conducted with Crumley for Crimespree Magazine. Two older pieces to look for are John Williams’ interview from his 1991 book Into the Badlands and an interview journalist-author Craig McDonald conducted with Crumley for Hardluck Stories. (McDonald follows that up today with a newspaper obituary that incorporates much of that same exchange.)
I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet James Crumley, except through the pages of his books, which I think is always the best way to get to know an author, anyway.
Wherever you are now, Mr. Crumley, I hope the camaraderie is generous and the beer is cold.
(Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.)