Undercover: The Last Good Mystery (10/05/78)

James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss (Random House, 259 pp., $8.95) carries more weight than any private-eye story since Ross Macdonald‘s The Chill. In some ways it’s far stronger. Macdonald’s web-of-deceit plotting, no matter how brilliant, has always been subverted by weaknesses of style: an epidemic of tortured similes, dialogue no one would ever speak, witless caricatures in place of living characters, and an almost complete lack of humor. Crumley is close to a natural writer, if he wants to put fear, fury or hilarity on the page, it goes on and stays on. This passage, a bar scene from the first page of The Last Good Kiss, is not only a true strike into bedrock American vernacular, it’s typical of Crumley:

Neither of them bothered to glance at me as I slipped onto a stool between [them] and the only two other customers in the place, two out-of-work shade-tree mechanics who were discussing their lost unemployment checks, their latest DWI conviction, and the probable location of a 1957 Chevy timing chain. Their knotty faces and nasal accents belonged to another time, another place. The dust bowl Thirties and a rattletrap, homemade Model-T truck heading into the setting sun. As I sat down, they glanced at me with the narrow eyes of country people, looking me over carefully as if I were an abandoned wreck they were planning to cannibalize for spare parts.

The backdrop of Crumley’s book, and the world of his detective, C.W. Sughrue, is at once rooted in a real past and brutally up-to-date. His subject is the long hangover the Seventies have had to suffer for the failure to face up to the conflicts of the Sixties: bad dope, hippie whores with pimps twice their age, small-time mob pornographers, spiritual retreats, instinctive flight and wasted questing. None of it reads as if it came out of the pages of Newsweek.

The Last Good Kiss shares this milieu with Dog Soldiers, but Crumley seems more intimate with its details than Robert Stone, and it shocks him less. Crumley’s America is as sordid as Stone’s, maybe more so, but he has no need to overdramatize it. Crumley doesn’t give in to a yearning for resolution through apocalypse. Dog Soldiers was taken as a “real novel,” but there are fewer murders in The Last Good Kiss. There is, in fact, only one, and it has a sting far worse than Stone was able to put into any of his.

C.W. Sughrue himself is not your run-of-the-mill sleuth. Crumley has worked material from a novel about his own South Texas boyhood into The Last Good Kiss, and the result is a detective shaped less by the tradition of hard-boiled murder fiction than by ambiguities of will and self-control, compassion, blown chances, and rage. Sughrue is about thirty-eight, with a drinking problem he learned how to handle after he woke up in Elko, Nevada, with a job cleaning toilets. He operates out of Montana (though The Last Good Kiss takes him all over the West), gathering evidence for divorce cases and repossessing cars and TV sets off the local Indian reservation. Sughrue found his way into the detective business courtesy of the army: sent to the stockade after a television crew witnessed his accidental destruction of three generations of a Vietnamese family, he faced a choice between Leavenworth and spying on radical groups, and took the latter. He has a drifter’s readiness for violence.crumleyThe Last Good Kiss is Crumley’s version of Raymond Chandler‘s The Long Goodbye, but Sughrue shares very little with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or with Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, for that matter. Sughrue is not a genius of ratiocination—he’s gut-smart, booze-wary—nor is he a moderate man. He has a broad streak of meanness that at times verges close to sadism: a quality he doesn’t like but is willing to use.

To say that Crumley has written his Long Goodbye is to say that he’s written a book about a friendship between two men. Crumley’s success with this theme dims Chandler’s, but his real breakthrough has to do with men and women. The great American detectives have been terrified of sex. Like General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove, Marlowe and Archer often see women as creatures who are after their precious bodily fluids. Sughrue is easily carnal—not James Bond stud, but a man who accepts women as people whose struggles share much with his own, with whom he can share himself. In fact, the women overshadow the men in The Last Good Kiss: their presence, even that of those who appear only for a few pages, moves the book on, defines the worth of what Sughrue is chasing.

The Last Good Kiss represents a quantum leap past Crumley’s first mystery, The Wrong Case (just out in Bantam paperback). He’s found a voice that I hope will go right on telling its tale, filling in the West with the shadows of loyalty and violence that are as much a part of the place as its motels, bus stations and bars—things few writers have captured so well.


Rolling Stone, October 5, 1978


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