A remembrance of James Crumley, who I’ve been enjoying the holy hell out of the last week or so, from the Guardian.
A good friend of mine has just died, which is always sad. But he also happened to be one of modern crime writing’s best practitioners, an author who inspired several new generations of mystery writers, both in the USA and the UK.
James Crumley died last Wednesday in a hospital in Missoula, Montana, at 68, following a decade of ill health from which we always thought he would somehow emerge intact, beating the devil at his own game. He was that sort of guy, a modern Hemingway in appearance and build, a self-confessed redneck who was also a brilliant academic, a storyteller of dark tales and even darker heroes who brought new dimensions to noir and picaresque tales in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.
In just under 40 years he only managed to write eight novels (one of which was his Vietnam book One to Count Cadence), but what wonderful, unique books they were. Many of us would just kill to have written a single one half as good. His first crime novel The Last Good Kiss features the best opening a private eye tale couId ever wish for:
“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.”
I will leave it to the obituarists and the critics to judge his legacy and undoubted talent and grade his memorable anti-heroes and weak-hearted ruffians, CW Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch. Now all I want to do is remember the man I knew.
The first time we met was in Paris at the Gare d’Austerlitz. We, together with a bunch of other crime writers, were invited to a festival in Grenoble and a special train, le Train Noir, was taking us down to the Alps, with whisky and champagne flowing throughout the journey. His French publishers had expected him a few days earlier, but he had not realised his passport had expired until he arrived at JFK airport. He had spent the two days waiting for his new passport in an assortment of New York bars and had somehow gotten into a bad fight and wrecked his right hand. He just made the last flight possible to Europe and arrived at the train station with minutes to spare in the worst possible condition, held together by painkillers and booze with a fist literally the size of a football. Somehow, as I spoke French, I was asked if I could act as a sort of guide and interpreter for Crumley. Needless to say, the major league hardcore drinker and the rare teetotal crime writer got on like a house on fire. When I left the hotel bar every night of the festival, Jim was still standing, alongside another legendary drinker, British writer Derek Raymond and, improbably, the fragile and diminutive Sarah Dunant who could drink any old hardboiled writer under the table. And when I came down for breakfast the next morning, who was still at the bar? Mr Crumley himself. A legend was born.
I would see Jim many times in the following years, in London, Nottingham, Omaha and Seattle, at conventions, festivals and on writing tours when our paths coincided. I reviewed his violent and picaresque middle-period novels for the Guardian and was even asked to do an introduction to a limited edition of his collected novels.
The last time I saw Jim was at the Courmayeur Noir in Fest in Italy under the shadow of Mont Blanc, some six years back. By then his health had taken a turn for the worse, but his drinking had diminished thanks to the love of a good woman, his new wife, the artist Martha Elizabeth. She had managed to tame the wild man without affecting his verve. His mobility was impaired so whenever festival obligations didn’t call, he stayed on his throne at the bar of the Hotel du Golf, and we all paid court. The barman would make him special toasted cheese sandwiches while the rest of us enjoyed the local restaurants, but we soon repaired to the lounge for tall stories or arm-wrestling bouts, which we all lost apart from, improbably, British writer Stella Duffy.
He would publish two further novels, The Final Country and The Right Madness, not just swan songs but bittersweet adventures in which he could evoke the skies over Texas and Montana and the landscapes of America like a veritable angel slumming amid the ferocious gunfire, the betrayals his characters always suffered and the trademark bruised romanticism that only he could conjure up without it sounding maudlin.
“It’s done. This may not be my final country. I can still taste the bear in the back of my throat, bitter with the blood of the innocent, and somewhere in my old heart I can still remember the taste of love. Perhaps this is just a resting place. A warm place to drink cold beer. But wherever my final country is, my ashes will go back to Montana when I die. Maybe I’ve stopped looking for love. Maybe not. Maybe I will go to Paris. Who knows? But I’ll sure as hell never go back to Texas again.”