Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In Memoriam James Crumley

One of my favorite writers of hard boiled fiction--hell, one of my favorite writers in general--died almost two months ago and I've just learned about it now. It seems that James Crumley has passed away rather quietly, a direct contrast to the years of hard drinking, hard living and turbulence that preceded his death.

Crumley's novel, The Last Good Kiss, totally upended my naive, unfounded prejudice towards genre fiction and kick started a fascination with the sordidness, the betrayal and disillusionment coupled with an extraordinary command of language and sense of plot structure--in short, with all the best things that characterize kick ass Crime Fiction. His body of work will continue to occupy the highest precincts of the genre, and his novels had such an impact on me personally that I'm almost envious of the perhaps unsuspecting readers who continue to pick up his books for the first time.

Crumley's work is popularly characterized as a a Chandler-meets-Hunter S. Thompson, and I guess that's fair. He certainly shared HST's sardonic worldview in the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras, and traces of it are present up through the next three decades. His characters often masked the painful pasts of their lives with mistrust and sardonicism, but the memories of personal hell almost always manifest themselves somehow. Chandler's marvelously erratic characters are always humming away somewhere underneath, but unlike both Chandler and HST, Crumley himself managed to possess both unprecedented talent while being criminally overlooked by major book reviewers and critics. He has no bestsellers. He isn't celebrated much outside the peripheries of the genre in which he wrote, but I hope that someday he will be. Almost all of his books are in print here in the U.S, but as is the case of other outstanding American writers of Detective/Crime Fiction like Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald and Charles Willeford, Crumley has gained greater respect in France and the UK than he has in his own country.

Speaking even as someone who's read everything the man's ever published, it's no surprise that I've only learned of his passing now. He has no biographer, and I've come across only one printed interview in a very hard to find collection of short stories. Very little exists online except for a handful of book reviews and a couple of fan websites that haven't been updated in years.

Ever since becoming a fan of his work, I've entertained the notion of spending a week or so in Missoula, Montana hanging out at Charlie B's--a bar Crumley was known to have frequented--with the hope that he'd walk in for a drink. I'm sorry I never made the trip (Missoula is beautiful country anyway), but his books will be on my shelf until my time comes, and I have no doubt that I'll find new reasons to enjoy them for years to come.

RIP James Crumley

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