Loving James Crumley is a little like loving the darkness at 4 a.m.
Especially when you awaken in a sweat. And rather than going back to sleep, you find yourself obsessing about all the things that you haven’t done, that you’ve failed at doing or that you’ll never get a chance even to try.
While you may hate feeling like that, sooner or later the sun’s going to rise. And if you’re lucky, those negative feelings will dissolve in the dawn faster than the smoke from cheap Mexican cigarettes.
Crumley fits in this picture as a writer who works in the great tradition of the hardboiled mystery novel. And just like the collection of losers, killers, harlots and chumps that comprises the genre Dashiell Hammett popularized and Raymond Chandler perfected, Crumley’s characters are often their own worst enemies.
Self-destruction is a particular trait of Montana private detective C.W. Sughrue, protagonist of Crumley’s 2005 novel “The Right Madness,” which just happens to be March’s selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
And if reading about Sughrue’s peculiarities can be uncomfortable at times, there’s comfort in knowing that, one, he’s a fictional character and, two, that you as reader can, whenever you choose, close the pages on his life and emerge into the relative brightness of your own existence.
Crumley introduced us to Sughrue way back in 1978 in the novel that bears the perfect noir title: “The Last Good Kiss.”
Sughrue popped up in 1993’s “The Mexican Tree Duck” and ‘96’s “Bordersnakes,” showing his penchant for cigarettes, liquor and even a toot or two of coke between the occasional bout with violence.
In this latest novel, Sughrue has sworn off all his vices. But when he’s hired by a shrink to check out some missing personnel files, he soon reverts to most, if not all, of his old bad habits.
Meanwhile, the bodies become gradually more numerous than ruts in a muddy Montana backroad.
As the Publishers Weekly reviewer crowed, “Crumley shows his usual deft touch with poetic language (a shady lawyer boasts ‘a smile as innocent as the first martini’) and humor (‘I’m a private investigator, sir; I leave the blackmail to the lawyers’).
“The themes of nightmarish madness, betrayal and survival will glue readers to the page. Crumley remains one of the finest writers in the Raymond Chandler tradition.”
By using the word “remains,” the critic is referring to Crumley’s body of work, especially “The Last Good Kiss,” which includes what has been called the greatest opening line the genre has ever produced:
“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 Sonora, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
Though born in Texas in 1939, Crumley has had a long association with Montana – a state known for its writing tradition.
In one online interview, he told interviewer Craig McDonald a story about a guy from Dallas who moved to Missoula because “he didn’t think there would be any writers there.”
“Then he finds out that two novels doesn’t buy you anything in Missoula,” Crumley said.
After graduating from high school, he spent three years in the Army. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Texas A&I, then attended the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he picked up a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.
After teaching at the University of Montana, Crumley held a series of visiting-teacher jobs over the years. His master’s thesis became his first novel, a story of Vietnam, 1969’s “One to Count Cadence.”
Beginning with 1975’s “The Wrong Case” – which introduced his other main protagonist, Milo Milodragovitch – Crumley began his mystery-writing career.
Which brings us back to “The Right Madness” and the characters whom Crumley uses to explore his own ongoing dark morning of the soul.
As the online edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica says of Milodragovitch and Sughrue, “Both are also alcoholics and cocaine addicts; both are divorced war veterans who are fond of firearms, military tactics, and fistfights over small matters; both are loyal to moral codes at odds with those of conventional society; and both endure existential crises in the course of events.”
Now go outside and live your life. There’s some sunshine out there somewhere.
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