Steven Powell is the editor of Conversations with James Ellroy (2012) and 100 American Crime Writers(2012). He has written several articles for the British Politics Review, blogs about crime fiction at VenetianVase.co.uk, and co-organized the “James Ellroy: Visions of Noir” conference at the University of Liverpool. His most recent work is James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).
Anyone who has ever attempted to write fiction will know how important– and agonisingly difficult—your opening line is to write. You can rewrite and rephrase the same sentence again and again in the elusive hope it will read well enough to grab the attention of agents and editors. James Crumley claimed the opening paragraph of The Last Good Kiss (1978) took him two months to write compared to the relatively short twelve months for the rest of the novel.
Like many a classic opening line, it seems as effortlessly pleasurable as the first whiskey of the evening, or at least that's how Crumley might have put it:
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 a fine spring afternoon.
And with that Crumley introduces us to the shambolic, hardbitten private eye and Vietnam veteran C(hauncey). W(ayne). Sughrue. More importantly, in these few lines, Crumley had begun to carve himself a place in the history of crime fiction. As a stylist Crumley navigated the murky waters between the literary and genre novel, the poetic and profane. After all, Crumley’s first novel, One to Count Cadence (1969), started life as his thesis at the University of Iowa. It was a work of grand literary ambitions based in part on Crumley's own experiences in the Vietnam War, but Crumley's revelatory experience as a writer came when he met the Scottish poet Richard Hugo. Crumley admired Hugo's work and was taken aback when Hugo professed his admiration for the writing of Raymond Chandler. With his own crime writing, Crumley seemed to have found the perfect medium between the profundities a literary author aspires to, while at the same time pushing the conventions of genre writing with his hardboiled protagonist’s outrageous, grizzled antics. If anything, the plotting is looser than Chandler's. Sughrue begins the novel by finding one missing person, the washed-up novelist Trahearne, and is then hired by the owner of the bar where Trahearne is hiding to find her daughter. Trahearne and Fireball join him for various bouts of drunken debauchery along the way. You can read whole chapters of the novel at a time and only feel only lightly involved in the plot, but Crumley was an expert in letting the reader enjoy the journey of the narrative before periodically reengaging you with the mystery. The laughs come from the belly, the violence (when it occurs) will make you wince and the characters are roguishly endearing. Even, perhaps I should say especially, Fireball will win a place in your heart: ‘the bulldog hunkered like a heathen idol, some magical toad with a ruby as large as a clenched fist in his head, glowing through his stoic eyes, an inscrutable snicker mystic upon his face’.
Crumley's plotting meanders more than the local drunk wandering from bar to bar, and his approach, while critically lauded now, certainly didn't win over every critic at the time. In Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, William L. DeAndrea describes Crumley's novels as 'plotless dirge to post-Vietnam dissolution and despair’. The detectives and virtually everyone they meet are drunks, druggies, and other varieties of losers.' Younger readers, however, who discover Crumley's writing for the first time through Black Swan’s reissue of The Last Good Kiss will be able to distinguish the earthy genius of Crumley from the pointless and witless work of those who followed him and tried disastrously to mixture violence and humour, à la Quentin Tarantino. All it will take is a few lines to convince you of Crumley’s gift for crime writing and make you mourn the writer who died at the age of 68: a man partly undone by the wild persona he had created for himself. As Sughrue says in his first person narration, ‘Nobody lives forever, nobody stays young long enough. My past seemed like so much excess baggage, my future a series of long goodbyes, my present an empty flask, the last good drink already bitter on my tongue.’
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