A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins


JAMES CRUMLEY – The Last Good Kiss. S. W. Sughrue #1. Random House, hardcover, 1978. Pocket, paperback, 1980. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, paperback, 1988.

   Since the death of Ross Macdonald and on the basis of just three novels, James Crumley has become the foremost living writer of private-eye fiction. Carrying on the Macdonald tradition in which the PI is no longer macho but a man sensitive to human needs, tom by inner pain, and slow to use force, Crumley has moved the genre into the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era.

   His principal setting is not the big city as in Hammett and Chandler, nor the affluent suburbs as in Macdonald, but the wilderness and bleak magnificence of western Montana. His prevailing mood is a wacked out empathy with dopers, dropouts, losers, and loonies, the human wreckage of the institutionalized butchery we call the “real world.” Nobility resides in the land, in wild animals, and in a handful of outcasts-psychotic Viet vets; Indians, hippies; rumdums; and love-seekers-who can’t cope with life.

   Crumley’s detective characters have one foot in either camp. Milo Dragovitch, the protagonist of The Wrong Case (1975) and Dancing Bear (1983), is a cocaine addict and boozer, the child of two suicides, a compulsive womanizer like his wealthy Hemingwayesque father; a man literally marking time until he will tum fifty-two and inherit the family fortune, which his pioneer ancestors legally stole from the Indians.

   Sughrue from The Last Good Kiss has a background as a Nam war criminal and an army spy on domestic dissidents and he’s drinking himself to death by inches. Yet these are two of the purest figures in the history of detective fiction, and the most reverent toward the earth and its creatures.

   Crumley has minimal interest in plot and even less in explanations, but he’s so uncannily skillful with character, language, relationship, and incident that he can afford to throw structure overboard. His books are an accumulation of small, crazy encounters, full of confusion and muddle, disorder and despair, graphic violence and sweetly casual sex, coke snorting and alcohol guzzling, mountain snowscapes and roadside bars.

   When he does have to plot, he· tends to borrow from Raymond Chandler. In The Wrong Case, Milo Dragovitch becomes obsessed by a young woman from Iowa who hires him to find her missing brother, a situation clearly taken from Chandler’s Little Sister (1949). The Last Good Kiss, perhaps the best of Crumley’s novels, traps Sughrue among the tormented members of the family of a hugely successful writer, somewhat as Philip Marlowe was trapped in Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye (1954).

   In Dancing Bear, which pits Milo Dragovitch against a multinational corporation dumping toxic waste into the groundwater, the detective interviews a rich old client in a plant-filled solarium just like Marlowe in the first chapter of Chandler’s Big Sleep (1939).

   None of these borrowings matter in the least, for Chandler’s tribute to Dashiell Hammett is no less true of Crumley: He writes scenes so that they seem never to have been written before. What one remembers from  The Last Good Kiss is the alcoholic bulldog and the emotionally flayed women and the loneliness and guilt. What is most lasting in Dancing Bear is the moment when Milo Dragovitch finds a time bomb in his car on a wilderness road and tosses it out at the last second into a stream and weeps for the exploded fish that died for him, and dozens of other moments just as powerful.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Bibliographic Note: As good as this book is, there were only two followup novels with Sugrue, those being The Mexican Tree Duck (Mysterious Press 1993) and Bordersnakes (Dennis McMillan 1996). The latter is a crossover with Milo Milodragovitch, who was in two solo adventures.