Noir by Northwest: A Last Good Interview with James Crumley

Ed’s note: My favorite story I ever wrote. Crumley liked it too. Here’s his email to me:

Wilford Brimley?! Jesus. Actually there’s a history. I walked into a backyard barbeque in LA once, and some bit actor shouted actoss the pool, “I don’t know you are, buddy, but Wilford Brimley’s getting all your parts.” The piece was fine, thanks. An old friend told me this afternoon that sometimes pieces about me don’t sound like me. This one did. Hope you had as much fun as I did. I’ll give you a shout when we get over that way. Maybe Xmas.

Take care,

Jim

ED MURRIETA; The Tacoma News Tribune

MISSOULA,  Mont. — Hard-boiled fiction’s last great opening line is how most readers meet James Crumley, the author of these famous first words:

“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.”

So begins Crumley’s 1978 novel, “The Last Good Kiss,” and thus enters C.W. Sughrue: dishonored Vietnam soldier, remorseful domestic spy and disillusioned private detective, an amphetamine-fueled antihero who is as vulnerable as he is volatile.

“That voice is just the voice you want to listen to,” said novelist and screenwriter Pete Dexter. “That voice is funny. That voice is smart. That voice has seen some stuff. That voice speaks of romance and adventure and humor, and bang – it’s there in one sentence. And the book itself is pretty damn good.”

“The Last Good Kiss” was Crumley’s second detective novel. His first, “The Wrong Case,” was written while Crumley lived on Vashon Island 30 years ago.

Neither novel, nor the five that followed, would have been written without the influence of Northwest poet Richard Hugo, a friend, colleague and “grand old detective of the heart” who introduced Crumley to the work of Raymond Chandler, the 20th-century master of gumshoe noir.

“I always introduce my work by explaining that I am a bastard child of Raymond Chandler,” said Crumley. “Line by line by line, image by image, he always has hold of the reader.”

The same can be said of Crumley.

Crumley’s twisted underworlds are “fetid with corruption, rotten as an ancient swamp.”

In Crumley’s Montana, “The full moon rose blazing over Mount Sentinel, outlining the maw of the Hellgate Canyon with silver fire.”

After a Crumley love scene, “She smelled of rain and stones glistening damply in a pine grove, of moss and pitch, of easy silence.”

Crumley’s own last words were almost written three years ago, when a mystery ailment nearly killed him during the middle of writing “The Right Madness,” which was published this spring.

Crumley said his doctors still don’t know what made his body swell with fluid. Hallucinating from powerful paralyzing drugs, he was tethered to a ventilator in Missoula Community Hospital for 12 days, “Long enough for me to think I was never going to write again.”

OF VICE AND MEN

When I finally caught up with James Crumley, we ate medium-rare rib-eyes at a hotel restaurant on the Clark Fork River just outside of downtown Missoula, the 66-year-old author nursing vodka tonics against the mountain-scorching July sun.

Hard living appeared to have caught up with the big man as well. Though Crumley said he recovered from whatever nearly killed him, arthritis and gout slowed him. His tumbleweed drawl was low and strained. When Crumley laughed, which was often and easily, it was soft and hollow. The craggily handsome roughneck of earlier years now resembled walrusy actor Wilford Brimley.

The invitation to this interview was extended in 1996, when I met Crumley as he promoted “Bordersnakes” in San Francisco. Look me up if you’re in Missoula, Crumley said. A friend reported the same invitation as Crumley promoted “The Right Madness.”

“I have a listed phone number,” Crumley said, explaining how visitors find him.

Most of those fans are French.

“They like my politics,” Crumley said. “I’m a Trotskyite.”

That explains Crumley’s revolutionary private-eye pyrotechnics. Set in a West that is at once mythic and postmodern, Crumley’s bread and butter is danger and heartache, open roads and closed emotions, frayed margins where beginnings, middles and endings explode happily or horrifically, depending on the politics of the person pulling the trigger.

As genre detectives go, Crumley’s are full of flaws and furies. Take Sughrue (that’s “Shoog” as in sugar and “rue” as in rue the day), who stars in “The Right Madness” as well as “The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) and “The Last Good Kiss.”

Sughrue is haunted by Vietnam. He killed civilians. “Recon by grenade,” Crumley said.

Faced with hard time in Leavenworth, Sughrue chose to spy on anti-war college radicals. Vietnam fills his dreams.

Sughrue’s estranged 13-year-old son, too, suffers nightmares: He witnessed Sughrue kill bad guys, saw him smile in their blood.

Sughrue is betrayed by his own nature. At heart, Sughrue is a Texas hippie who gets burned by people he too easily trusts. His son’s rejection “hurts like a broken rib.” Violence, drink and drugs salve loathing, pain and fear.

“Crumley has achieved a level of mastery that’s not just about whodunit,” said Alicia Gaspar de Alba, author of “Desert Blood,” a novel for which Crumley, her former professor, wrote a cover blurb.

“His protagonists, if you were to look at them outside of a book structure, you would say, ‘What a loser. Why doesn’t he get a life?’ It is through working their problems and using their problems and how their problems take them places where those of us who don’t have those problems never go, that’s the reason Crumley achieves that mastery. It’s not just the detective form. It’s what he does with characters.”

While Crumley’s work is marketed among genre fiction, “When it’s good, it transcends that,” said Dexter.

Dexter, the National Book Award winner who lives on Whidbey Island, said, “If I see a new Crumley book, I’ll get on a ferry and spend an afternoon going to get it. He’s just a lot of fun.”

But sometimes he’s frustrating fun. Crumley said nobody has been able to spot the seam in “The Right Madness,” the point in the novel before or after his mystery illness. But that’s probably because like all of Crumley’s novels, “The Right Madness” explodes into an orgy of duplicity and violence. Readers finish sated, but not always sure what’s gone down.

As The New York Times said while praising Crumley’s first novel in 1969, “With all its power, the novel is flawed by an excess of its virtues. … There is a monotony, not of inaction, but of too much.”

THE ARTIST IN ANGER

Madness is another persistent theme.

“The dichotomy between the promise of democracy and the actuality of democracy drives people crazy,” Crumley said.

Turning inward, a road less traveled by Sughrue, Crumley added:

“I’ve always been a troubled person. I’ve had many years of terrible temper. I have a bad reputation for taking things personally.”

That helps explain three divorce decrees contained among letters, novels, poetry and unproduced screenplays that Crumley sold to the Southwest Writers Collection at Texas State University-San Marcos.

“My ex-wife took my children and moved them to Tacoma. It was a long, bitter divorce,” said Crumley, who for years shuttled between Missoula and Tacoma to visit his sons, now 24 and 21.

“I wrote most of ‘The Wrong Case’ in Vashon,” Crumley said. “I was really mad then. The K2 ski factory was out there then, and they had all the ex-cons working for them in a rehabilitation program. They were convinced that I was a narc. It took me awhile, some barroom tussles and smoking dope with them.”

In Hollywood – a mistress that Crumley fell for like a do-wrong dame that does in hard-boiled heroes – Crumley accompanied edgy actor Dennis Hopper on the set of “River’s Edge” and literally flew high with literary rocker Warren Zevon.

“I spent some time with a therapist,” Crumley said. “I don’t know what she did, but she got rid of my anger. It worked out perfect, because the woman I’m married to now wouldn’t put up with me if I acted crazy that way.”

LIFE AFTER WAR

That Crumley survived the most enduring madness of his generation – the Vietnam War – is the result of timing and military regulations.

“The only thing that kept me out of that war was that the Marines weren’t taking any re-enlistments from the other services in ’63,” he said.

Crumley had already served three years, mostly in the Army. He went back to college and sold his first novel, fresh out of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He did a series of teaching gigs, beginning at the University of Montana in 1966.

In 1984, Crumley gave up academic saddle-tramping in favor of the novelist’s life in Missoula, “the only vaguely leftist city in Montana,” a home he’s returned to six times. He’s married to artist and poet Martha Elizabeth, his wife of 13 years.

Many of Crumley’s friends – and guys like C.W. Sughrue – weren’t so lucky.

“Guys who are in their late 50s now who’ve never had any post-traumatic stress problems are suddenly having them,” said Crumley, who was a faculty adviser for Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Students for a Democratic Society. “I know a handful of guys who didn’t realize it until they were having nightmares. It comes 30 years later. That’s why the war was important.”

NOVELS BY JAMES CRUMLEY

“One to Count Cadence” (1969)

“The Wrong Case” (1975)

“The Last Good Kiss” (1978)

“Dancing Bear” (1983)

“The Mexican Tree Duck” (1993)

“Bordersnakes” (1996)

“The Final Country” (2001)

“The Right Madness” (2005)

Ed Murrieta: 253-597-8678

ed.murrieta@thenewstribune.com

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