More reminiscences from the Missoulian.
Just about everyone who knew him has a favorite Jim Crumley story.
“I’ve got about 2,000 of them,” says William Kittredge. “But none of them belong in the Missoulian.”
Stories about the hard-living Crumley are best told, and heard, in one of his favorite watering holes in downtown Missoula – Charlie B’s probably topped the list – where they can be traded over a beer, or a fine single-malt Scotch whisky.
Crumley’s stories, meantime, are best read by anyone who craves a detective novel, and appreciates a magician of language.
The Missoula author, who died Wednesday afternoon at 68, was considered one of the finest hard-boiled crime novelists of his time.
“First, he could write a great sentence and a great paragraph,” says Kittredge, a fellow author and longtime friend who got his job teaching writing at the University of Montana in 1969 because Crumley had resigned the position. “Second, he really understood the nonurban population, to talk like a sociologist.”
. . .
Bob Reid is Missoula County’s emergency services director, but the then-budding author was a police officer when Kittredge introduced him to Crumley some 30 years ago.
They met at a social gathering, and a couple of nights later, while on patrol, Reid noticed Crumley’s car parked at Kittredge’s home.
“I just thought I’d go up and knock on the door and say hello,” Reid says, “but Crumley sees a police car pull up and a uniform walking up the sidewalk, and I think it gave him severe pause.
“It was always an interesting contrast, his outlaw take on life and my line of work. I didn’t go on the long bar marches – I doubt I could survive one, and I was never interested in seeing if I could. I suppose ours was an improbable friendship in a lot of ways.”
That friendship included several trips to France together – where, like Japan, Crumley’s novels found some of their most ardent fans – for book-related events.
“It was always amazing to watch,” Reid says. “He’d become great pals with the bartender across the street from the hotel or wherever. Now, Jim could barely speak a word of French and he had that Texas accent to boot, but they’d be talking and carrying on like nobody’s business.”
Missoula author Rick DeMarinis met Crumley in 1966, when DeMarinis was a graduate student at UM and Crumley had come to teach.
“We caroused together, and continued that pattern for 20 years, until I dropped out of the carousing scene,” DeMarinis says. “No one could keep up with Jim. He was a first-rate carouser, and stuck to that lifestyle.”
One of DeMarinis’ favorite memories came in December 1968, when he and his wife Carol joined Crumley and the second of Crumley’s five wives, Maggie, on a car trip to New York City.
The occasion: The publication of “One to Count Cadence.”
“Jim had just bought a 1961 Buick Skylark station wagon, and he wanted to take that,” DeMarinis remembers. “We stocked the back of the station wagon with beer, and when we took off, it was kind of warm, in the 40s. But by the time we got to Butte it was cold, the temperature in the teens and probably below. So he turns the heater on.”
Nothing. No air, hot or cold.
“We opened up the hood and all the heat ducts had been crimped off in this Buick,” DeMarinis says. “So we stopped in Butte and bought a catalytic heater that he set on the dashboard to try to keep the windshield clear.”
A blizzard in South Dakota closed the highway and the two couples were stranded in the small town of Chamberlain.
“Trucks couldn’t get into town, so they ran out of everything – eggs, bacon, you name it,” DeMarinis says. “So we stayed in the hotel room, watched football games and drank beer.”
Back on the road, the catalytic heater kept a small space on the windshield clear of ice, and they made it to New York – though “how we didn’t poison ourselves with that heater, I don’t know,” DeMarinis says.
On the trip back a seal on the engine broke, and they had to nurse the station wagon 50 miles to the next town without any oil before it could be repaired.
“I’ll say this about that old Buick engine,” DeMarinis says. “It didn’t seize up. That was our big adventure, or one of the early ones, anyway. But it was a thrill, because it was a big-time thing, Jim publishing his first novel.”
Gruff on the exterior, to a person Crumley’s friends say he was also incredibly kind, generous, open to people of all walks of life and nonjudgmental.
Missoula author Neil McMahon has a story he thinks is very telling about Crumley.
In about 1978, McMahon says he was in the Eastgate Lounge one night when the door “plunged open and Jim comes lurching in, all wild-eyed. His shirt was gone, and he had blood all over him.”
McMahon didn’t know Crumley personally yet, but he knew who he was. By reputation alone, McMahon assumed alcohol was somehow involved.
“Jim had been out on the strip, driving into town, and he’d witnessed this hit-and-run,” McMahon says. “Somebody had hit this teenage boy, this young man, and driven off. Jim jumped out of the car. He pulled his shirt off his back and covered the boy. The kid had a bad head injury and Jim sat there in the street and held his head together until the ambulance arrived.
“I think that’s a good character sketch of Jim Crumley.”
His father worked the oilfields of south Texas and his mother was a waitress. Crumley grew up in Mathis, a small town inland from Corpus Christi he described in the 2001 interview with the Missoulian as “not a particularly happy place.”
He told the Los Angeles Times in 1996 that he “knew what it was to wear feed-sack shirts, and what it was to occasionally miss a meal.”
“I was kicked out of high school three times before I graduated,” he told Jones. “I think it was because of the principal’s daughter. She was going to be valedictorian if I missed enough days.”
Crumley graduated second in his class.
He attended Georgia Tech for one year on a scholarship before joining the Army, where he spent most of his time in the Philippines – and, he said, in trouble.
“I liked the Philippines,” Crumley said in 2001. “It was a lot like Mexico, except it was poorer. I felt comfortable there. … And the beer was great.”
Back in the states, Crumley tried college again, enrolling at Texas A&I, where he seemingly switched majors more often than socks – aeronautical engineering, petroleum engineering, physics, pre-law, education, English – and finally settled on history, where he earned his degree.
At Texas A&I, he showed poems he had written to someone who suggested Crumley try fiction, and apply to graduate school at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers Workshop.
His classmates in Iowa City included Kurt Vonnegut. Crumley loved it.
“It was like a big community of maniacs,” he said later. “Everybody read and talked about books all the time. I was in heaven. It was the first time I was ever around anything like that.”
During his second year at Iowa, he wrote “One to Count Cadence.”
Crumley’s second attempt at a novel didn’t go so well. After the manuscript grew to 900 pages, he burned it in the fireplace.
He also came to Missoula to teach, where he became fast friends with poet Richard Hugo. It was Hugo who turned Crumley on to Raymond Chandler, and started Crumley on the road to literary stardom (after its big rollout, “One to Count” sold just 7,500 copies).
Milo Milodragovitch was the first P.I. to spring from Crumley’s mind, in his 1975 novel “The Wrong Case.”
C.W. Sughrue was next in “The Last Good Kiss,” the novel that cemented Crumley’s place in the genre.
“That’s his masterpiece,” Kittredge says. “The first two or three pages are so good you can’t believe it. Men’s Journal named it one of the 10 best hard-boiled crime novels of all time. It established him as one of the best novelists in the country.”
McMahon says the first character introduced in “The Last Good Kiss,” Abraham Trahearne, is based on Hugo.
It’s sometimes reported, meantime, that author Ray Bradbury named the detective in his trilogy of mystery novels – “Death is a Lonely Business,” “A Graveyard for Lunatics” and “Let’s All Kill Constance” – as a tribute to Crumley.
But McMahon says Crumley once ran into Bradbury at a writers’ conference and kidded the author best known for his science fiction about stealing his name to create detective Elmo Crumley for his mystery novels.
Elmo Crumley, Bradbury told him, had been the name of one of his high school teachers.
James Crumley left Missoula occasionally to teach elsewhere – at the University of Arkansas, Reed College in Oregon and at Texas-El Paso – but 16 years ago married poet and artist Martha Elizabeth and came home to the town and people he loved for good.
He was “endlessly amusing,” McMahon says.
“Jim would go into Charlie B’s and he knew everyone,” Kittredge says. “Knew their names, where they worked, their life stories, their children, their children’s birthdays, he could name their dogs. He judged no one harshly.”
“He was always ready to have a good time,” DeMarinis says. “His life was about enjoying it on his own terms, and he succeeded. But he was also open, generous and very kind. He was open to all sorts of things and people in a way that made him courageous.”
With his death, the face of Missoula has changed, Reid says, and a huge hole has been left in the lives of his family and many friends.
“But you know,” Reid adds, “it’s good to have those books.”