JAMES CRUMLEY – The Last Good Kiss. Random House, hardcover, 1978. Reprint paperback: Pocket, 1981. Vintage Books, trade ppbk, 1988.


   Most private eyes work out of huge metropolitan cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Through the years a handful of others have based their somewhat seedier operations in midwestern population centers such as Chicago, Cleveland and Indianapolis.

   On television this season there is an example of how a Las Vegas detective goes about his business, but you’d have to admit that the glamor and glitter of that particular show is far from typical of mainstream America, and so it remains far more reminiscent of that old stand-by of the pulp magazines, the Hollywood private eye story.

   C. W. Sughrue’s home is Montana, however, and his outlook on life and happiness, or the pursuit thereof, is correspondingly closer to a segment of American demographics long ignored by other authors, obsessed with the bizarre vagaries of life in southern California, for example.

   Rocky Mountain jade. Sughrue is often dirty and unshaven, and a good deal of the time he’s drunk, or close to it, but never obnoxiously so. He’s as much a combination of hippie and redneck as either variety of humanity could ever recognize as possible. He mixes affably with both, and yet he has the same moral obligation to himself that all the great private detectives of literature have had to have hidden inside.


   The story, as it strips his character carefully away in layers, is so intensely revealing that for him to become yet another series creation would be close to pointless.

   As muddled — or even more so — as any in real life, the story begins with a hunt for a famous bar-hopping poet and novelist who takes him on a binge through several states before he’s found, but before he can return home Sughrue is sidetracked into chasing down a runaway girl, lost and not found in the pornographic environs of San Francisco ten years earlier.

   Lives are muddled as well, and revelations are painfully hard to come by. The tale that Crumley has to tell builds slowly and easily into a climax that explodes with all the emotional thrill of a gut-satisfying revenge about to be released.

   Crumley is not the new Hammett. He’s closer to Chandler, if names must be dropped, but in several ways he’s the equal of both, their peer. In fact, he’s that rarity, an authentic rough-hewn original, and they don’t happen along very often.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 3, No. 3, May-June 1979 (very slightly revised). This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.

[UPDATE] 04-14-09.   Some comments from me, thirty years later. I have not re-read the book at any time between then and now.

(1) Here’s the first line of the book, still one of the more memorable ones of hard-boiled crime fiction, in my opinion:

    “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.”

(2) I do not know what TV show I was referring to in the second paragraph. I could look it up, but if you know without resorting to a reference book, leave a comment. I have no prizes to offer to the first one to come up with the correct answer, I’m sorry to say.

(3) It is difficult, sometimes, for a reviewer to say exactly why he or she likes a book. It is far more easy to say why you don’t. Reading this review for the first time in the same 30 years, I’m disappointed (but not surprised) that I wasn’t more clear as to what I read that produced this rave review. (In the MYSTERY FANcier version, but not the one in the Courant, you might like to know that I included a rating: A Plus.)

(4) Somewhere in the middle I suggested that it would be difficult for Crumley to continue using C. W. Sughrue as a series character. As we know now, there were other books, but as I recall none of them knocked my socks off as much as this one. I’ll add a complete list below. (It did take 15 years for Crumley to write about Sughrue again.)

(5) At the end of the review, I compared Crumley to both Hammett and Chandler, saying he was their equal. In the long run, while the author and his books are both cult favorites, I don’t think his career was anywhere near as successful (or known today) as I thought it might. Am I wrong about this?

C. W. SUGHRUE.   [James Crumley]

       * The Last Good Kiss. Random House, 1978.
       * The Mexican Tree Duck. Mysterious Press, 1993.


       * Border Snakes. Mysterious Press, 1996. Note: Crumley’s other PI character, Milo Milodragovitch, also appears in this book.
       * The Right Madness. Viking, 2005.