Doesn’t it always start with poetry? Or at least a poet. Or at least a writer. Or at least a successful writer with a couple critically acclaimed poetry collections and a few hyper-masculine commercial novels to pay the bills. Or at least a successful writer with a couple critically acclaimed poetry collections and a few hyper-masculine novels to pay the bills on an epic cross-country drinking binge, leading a PI hired by the writer’s ex-wife from dirty bar to dirty bar. And isn’t it always about sex? And money? And, sure, sex for money? Or at least a man wanting to own his wife’s past, because men want to own everything of the women they marry. And then isn’t it about finding the one thing so many seek—forgiveness—and being so unprepared for it, so unable to cope with it, so incapable of corroborating the idea of your self with the idea of your self as someone worthy of forgiveness, that you destroy everything in your life? Doesn’t it always start with writer’s block?
Noir, pulp, and hard-boiled detective fiction had been around the block a bit by the time James Crumley got his hands on them in the late 70s. They had art injected into them like adrenaline into a stammering heart and art drawn out of them like venom from a snake bite. They had been derived and derivative. Practiced by professionals and amateurs. By the time Crumley wrote, “Then he told me about naked women and sunlight. And that he was a bastard,” you could expect such a line from a noir novel, from a pulp novel, from a detective novel. But that doesn’t diminish the perfection of such a line.
Every book I love has a moment when the author earns my trust. It could be a line or a passage or a plot twist. It could be early in the book or later in the book. My trust in a book is a formal benefit of doubt, an assumption that whatever I read is intentional and sophisticated material for meaning. Crumley earned my trust with one of the most preposterous seduction scenes I have ever read.
Hard-boiled PI C.W. Sughrue has tracked down the famous author Abraham Trahearne and in the course of, let’s call it a misunderstanding, Trahearne gets shot in the ass. One of the nurses in the hospital where Trahearne recovers is a fan of his work and Sughrue uses that to get a date with her. He eventually takes her back to the hotel room he’s sharing with Abraham and seduces her by telling her that Trahearne is impotent but gets inspiring dreams when a friend has sex with a women in the room while he sleeps. Sughrue even tells her she will almost certainly end up in a poem. Yeah. Here’s how that ends.
“Okay,” she murmured, then stepped into my arms again, “but you have to turn out the lights.”
“I won’t be able to see your freckles,” [Sughrue] said.
“You can taste them, silly.”
A killer line. From a character we see the morning after and never again. Completely inverting the pulp sex scene by questioning which of the two was actually the seducer. At this point in the novel, I had no idea where Crumley was leading me, but I was all too glad to follow.
Sughrue solves the first mystery by page six, having tracked down Trahearne at a bar outside San Francisco. He appears to solve the second by page 127. Then half a dozen more pop up over the rest of the book including one that arrives on page 240 and is solved on page 243 of this 244 page book. So you can’t really call this a mystery novel. At times, it’s a road novel, a buddy novel, an odd couple novel. Sughrue and Trahearne are sometimes a two-person Mardi Gras complete with a beer-slurping bulldog sidekick named Fireball. It’s also a “writer self-destructs” novel and a traditional “detective always does the one thing he knows he shouldn’t do,” novel. There’s a touch of organized crime, a touch of the aesthetics of madness and the madness of aesthetics. Even some ivory tower stuff, Haight-Ashbury stuff, and classic manipulative family drama. There’s something standard in here, about people who can’t run from their pasts and the forces of detection that make all pasts present, but, though Crumley keeps much of the detective scaffolding, he’s restoring a different cathedral.
The Last Good Kiss is a war novel. The exact same way The Great Gatsby is a western. Sughrue and Trahearne are both veterans, of Vietnam and WWII respectively. Trahearne forced himself to kill a wounded enemy to transform into a warrior and was never able to turn himself back. So he approaches drinking as warfare and writing as warfare and living as warfare. Sughrue’s path through war was more twisted. Sughrue takes an assault too far and ends up in prison for his crimes. After serving time, he was recruited or perhaps compelled, into a domestic espionage program and spied on left-wing groups for the government. Through his experience in Vietnam and his subsequent training, Sughrue directly became the detective we read. Two warriors floundering in peace time, failing in most aspects of the life of peace, but never quite erasing the attraction we all feel towards warriors.
Given the machismo level of the two main characters, and the genre, and, you know, America, it’s probably most remarkable that Crumley wrote relatively strong female characters. From the nurse in the seduction scene, to a young woman trying to turn her life around who is meaner than a Marine, to Trahearne’s two-wives—the sculptor who cares for him and the ex-wife who keeps him alive—to Trahearne’s mother, who wrote a couple of schlocky bestsellers and retired to a life of leisure, to Rosie who runs a run-down bar, sleeps with whoever, and just wants to see her daughter one more time. Yes, the most prominent trait in all of them, besides the crone, is their sexuality, but they have an ownership of their sexuality rare in, you know, books. Furthermore, when sex happens, regardless of what Sughrue and Trahearne tell themselves, it happens on the woman’s terms. I won’t claim Crumley wrote a feminist pulp detective novel, but he has certainly distinguished himself from the lazy misogyny that pollutes almost the entire genre.
Ultimately, though, what pervades the book is Crumley’s joy in the form. David Markson, author of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, wrote two killer pulp detective novels, but neither of them had nearly as much fun in pulp as Crumley does. Sure, there’s disillusionment, betrayal, heartbreak, and the exact kind of depressing conclusion noir requires, but Crumley has such a blast writing it, the emotional content carries a different weight. In a way, it all seems like an elaborate ruse for Crumley to give himself permission to write passage like this:
…I put Rosie’s eighty-seven dollars in a dollar slot machine and hit a five-hundred dollar jackpot. Then I fled to the most depressing place in the West, the Salt Lake City bus terminal, where I drank Four Roses from a pint bottle wrapped in a paper bag. I couldn’t even get arrested, so I headed up to Pocatello to guzzle Coors like a pig at a trough with a gang of jack Mormons, thinking I could pick a fight, but I didn’t have the heart for it. Eventually, none the worse for wear, I drifted North toward Meriwether like a saddle tramp looking for a spring roundup.
But that is the ruse, the scam, the con of writing; years of effort, hundreds of pages, dozens of plot twists all for permission to say some of the crazy shit radiating in your brain to another human being across a distance large enough that no one comes at you with a straight jacket.
Did I mention C.W. Sughrue drives a fire engine red El fucking Camino? Yeah. Probably should have lead with that.