Spotlight: James Crumley – crime fiction author

My favorite guilty-pleasure reading is hard-boiled crime fiction by writers who make it real. The Raymond Chandlers or Ross Macdonalds of the craft. A few years into my retirement at about age 70, I scratched an itch and began writing my own detective fiction. Since then, I have spawned some six titles all currently on Amazon Kindle, where they reside in benign neglect. But enough about that, as this is not a self-promotion blog. Over the last ten years, in parallel with my scribbling, I began reading a bucket load of Kindle offerings in the ninety-nine cent to three or four buck range. Partly for “entertainment” and partly to check out the competition and partly to stay within my retirement budget. I also occasionally sprang for the ten to fifteen dollar terrific reads of my current favorites like Lee Childs, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Jeffrey Deaver, plus old favorites of another era like Dutch Leonard and Lawrence Block, I’m no astute critic, a lay reader at best, but in my humble opinion there is a wide chasm between these guys and most of the current bargain basement authors, not all but most. These latter offer okay reads, but gems, even the uncut variety, they are not.

With this introduction out of the way, I have decided on a series of blogs to showcase some of my favorite authors, especially including some lesser knowns or up-and-comings. These are distinguished from the also-rans by truly memorable, often outrageous characters encased in serviceable, well-conceived plots, and (this is crucial) an engaging writing style that is both distinct and spot-on in setting and characterization..

On the one hand, this is writing that stands up to a re-read, even invites it, and gives you, augments even, the same kick in the gut response that captivated you first time through. Or variously, writing that’s so transparently good at putting you into the action, at evoking the totality of character, setting, and plot, that the writing itself kind of disappears. Michael Connelly is such an author.

A lesser known practitioner of the first kind, the subject of this blog, is James Crumley, now sadly deceased, who wrote his half-dozen plus masterpieces in the final decades of the twentieth century. We were both born in the same year, 1939, but he grew up in South Texas, not the Midwest, and served a hitch in the army in the late fifties. After earning a bachelor’s in history, he spent two years at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, earing a Masters of Fine Arts. His masters thesis was later published under the title, One to Count Cadence. His first published piece of detective fiction (The Wrong Case, 1975) was inspired by his reading of the two masters cited in my opening paragraph, Chandler and Macdonald.

Many years ago, long before the advent of e-books, I came across The Wrong Case in paperback. I forget the exact year, but probably early eighties, years during which I lived on my sailboat and was between jobs. I did a lot of reading and bought a lot of detective fiction at second hand bookstores, one in particular in Sidney BC. What I remember vividly about The Wrong Case, it was my best damn read in many months. Subsequently, I scarfed up a Crumley whenever I came across a title, always second hand as it was what I could decently afford, or at other times chose to afford given other imperatives. I read The Last Good Kiss, The Mexican Tree Duck, The Final Country, and The Right Madness, not necessarily in that order and either borrowed in hardback from a local library or purchased as a used paperback.

No lengthy, boring book reports in this blog, as my purpose is simply to introduce you to a somewhat neglected and largely unknown author of great reads if your taste runs to hard-boiled detective fiction. He was never a best-seller like Lee Childs, of whom I’m an avid reader, but in my opinion Crumley’s prose is superior and his two main characters, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue, are at least as interesting and Jack Reacher. And are tougher, to boot. In the nineties and until I retired in 2007, I pretty much gave up guilty-pleasure reading, being immersed in my second career as the administrator of a continuing care retirement community. More to the point, the remainder of Crumley’s books lay unread by me,.

Many avid, and even occasional readers have had the experience of picking up a book and finding at some point that they’ve read the damn thing before, often making this discovery after shelling out good money. I sure have. When I introduced myself to Microsoft Word, I created a document that attempted to avoid these lapses of memory, or possibly harbingers of approaching senility. I began listing by author every book read, even going back to list previous reading, as best as I could remember. Thus, I included “Crumley, James,” in this catalog, and in his case listing not only the books read, but also those unread. I did this also for a few favorites like Lawrence Block and Elmore Leonard, plus a lesser known but personal favorite, John Lescroart, as well as the popular J.A. Jance (why her? let’s just say that’s a story for another time or blog ).

The “not yet reads” portions of the list lay neglected as I continued my sojourn through Kindle purchases, now numbering well into the hundreds, a lot of it frankly forgettable. I only added titles to “books.doc” for those authors already on the list. These authors, Connelly, Coben, Deaver, DeMille, Sandford, etc, being the good stuff, were a lot more expensive. Crumley’s unread titles, numbering four beginning with Bordersnakes, were among the neglected; that is, until I opened the books.doc to add Robert Crais’ A Dangerous Man, and chanced to glance at the Crumley listings, as both names begin with the same two consonants. Wondered if his books were on Kindle, and decided to take a look. Yup, all were there, but at ten bucks per, were priced well above the also-rans or new authors trying to gain a foothold. My memory warming to those long ago great reads, I decided to splurge and did the familiar “one-click” order of Bordersnakes.

And am beyond glad that I did. The old magic is there. The plot is straightforward. Track down some bad guys. Dudes almost as mean as Milo and Sughrue. Milo is hunting a mobbed up shady lawyer who stole his seven figure inheritance (about how he came into that, a story in itself). Sughrue is tracking a team of hired killers, “bordersnakes,” who gut-shot him and left his dying body in an arroyo–but being a tough s.o.b, he survives, staggers to his car, and drives himself to the nearest ER. In the telling of their revenge journey, Crumley’s writing displays a raw narrative power that scores a bullseye time after time. Patrick Anderson of The Washington Post, provides the apt assessment: “You don’t read Crumley for plot. You read him for his outlaw attitude, his rough poetry and his scenes, paragraphs, sentences, moments. You read him for the ‘lawyer with a smile as innocent as the first martini.'”

I hope my little post has intrigued you, and maybe motivated you to grab a copy of one of his novels for a future Kindle read. You might want to start with his first, The Wrong Case, or the second, The Last Good Kiss. This latter work, according to Wikipedia, is viewed by a number of fellow writers as his best and regarded as the most influential crime novel of the last fifty years. Despite the high regard accorded him by fellow crime writers, Crumley never had a best seller, never achieved mainstream success. But he had a cult following. I pride myself as a member.