A reader, Michael L., recommended James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss to me about fifteen months ago, knowing my affinity for hard-boiled detective novels. (This should also give you some idea of how long my to-be-read queue is.) Michael described it as very Raymond Chandler-esque, with influences from later, more “sordid” writers. It is undoubtedly more lurid and graphic than Chandler’s novels, but shares the master’s sense of characterization and his knack for weaving complex mysteries among a very small number of flawed people by layering intrigues and peeling them back one by one for the reader.
Crumley’s detective hero/antihero is C.W. Sughrue, a war veteran and possibly unreliable narrator (so maybe he’s not a war veteran) who handles unglamorous P.I. jobs like spying on wayward spouses for divorce cases or locating deadbeats for bill collectors. While retrieving a wayward author named Trahearne for the man’s ex-wife, Sughrue starts a brawl and shooting match that ends with him earning a job to locate a woman, Betty Sue, who’s been missing for ten years. Betty Sue was in San Francisco with a boyfriend when their car became stuck in traffic, at which point she opened the car door, walked away, and was never heard from again.
The pursuit of Betty Sue is the main plot point that drives the novel forward, but it’s the layering, mostly around Trahearne, that makes the novel so rewarding. Trahearne is a war veteran who fought at Guadalcanal, published three pulpy novels and some volumes of poetry, and lives on an estate in Montana with his wife, his ex-wife, and his mother, running off on semi-regular benders, one of which puts him on Sughrue’s radar. When the two men strike up an odd friendship and Sughrue’s hired to find Betty Sue, Trahearne cajoles Sughrue into letting him tag along, which is when the layering – and the lying, because no one in this story seems to tell the truth at first or even second blush – begins.
Sughrue might be the fourth- or fifth-most interesting character in his own book, which separates this from the best of Chandler, whose novels always revolved around Philip Marlowe. Sughrue certainly mimics Marlowe’s exterior toughness, dry wit, and natural cynicism (especially around the motives of others), but I didn’t find him compelling – he often takes a backseat to the beer-swilling bulldog Fireball, whose loyalty to his owner may merely reflect a desire to protect his main enabler. Trahearne is the real star of the book, complex enough to border on the ridiculous, an emotional train wreck on the inside with a buffoonish exterior. Sughrue makes his presence felt, but more as the machine that makes the other characters go; his best scene is his assault on a house in Colorado where he’s trying to rescue a kidnapping victim, and he has to deal with the house’s defenses and the idiocy of his overbearing, heavily-armed sidekick.
It doesn’t measure up to the best Chandler – which, for me, would start with Farewell, My Lovely – but it’s a quick read that was hard to put down but never insulted my intelligence while holding my attention.
Side note: I’m shocked that this was never made into a film. It certainly has all of the elements to satisfy a major studio – sex, violence, humor, sharply-drawn characters – but has the smart dialogue and layered plotting of a good Coen Brothers movie.
Next up: Carol Shields’ novel The Stone Diaries, winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
I’m burying the lede here a little, but I want to thank everyone who’s offered kind words and positive thoughts after this week’s rumor regarding me. I have no comment on the rumor itself, of course, but so many of you have written via one method or another, including a number of readers who have never reached out to me before, that I want to make it clear how much I appreciate your messages and your continued readership over the last five-plus years. This job would not be half as much fun without you guys.
Have a safe and happy New Year’s celebration tonight. If you choose to drink, please give the keys to someone who hasn’t.