Thursday, September 18, 2008

James Crumley, 1939-2008

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 one fine spring afternoon.  Trahearne had been on this wandering binge for nearly three weeks, and the big man, dressed in rumpled khakis, looked like an old soldier after a long campaign, sipping slow beers to wash the taste of death out of his mouth.  The dog slumped on the stool beside him like a tired little buddy, only raising its head occasionally for a taste of beer from a dirty ashtray set on the bar.
These are the opening sentences of The Last Good Kiss, still the finest mystery novel I've ever read, though ultimately it is far less concerned with solving a mystery than with cataloguing the sadnesses and disappointments of its characters' lives in a way that makes your heart ache for them (which is one of the reasons why the ecstatic praise for Kate Atkinson's fine but nowhere near as good Case Histories has left me baffled).  Of Crumley's other novels, I've only read The Wrong Case, which still leaves me a small but promising bibliography to go through.  What distinguished Crumley for me was his ability to delve into the squalor and grime of 70s America, his stories taking place in towns gutted by drugs and the erosion of industry and wealth, while still feeling a profound compassion for his characters, no matter how damaged.  Violent, brutal, and ultimately hopeless as they were, his novels are among the kindest I've ever read.

(Report from The Missoulian of Crumley's death.)

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