James Crumley writes some of the finest sentences I’ve ever read. Sometimes they’re short , sharp strokes - leaving shards as slick and smooth as ice slivers.
“I never saw him hunt; just shoot like an angel with God’s eye.”
“…the knife edge of the wind had scraped the sky to a pale autumn blue.”
“…her slim hips as elegant as a glass harp”
Sometimes, they’re carved in more intricate shapes,
Unlike some women’s green eyes, Lorna’s never glittered metallically. They were always softly smudged, sleepy, dissipated like the smoke drifting from a green flare.”
And now he had the belly of a Republican banker with the only fire inside his spastic colitis, caused perhaps , by his fat, rich Main Line Philadelphia wife, Charity, who by all accounts had none and was reputed, when drunk, to be meaner than a tow sack full of drowning cats.”
Shapes that not another writer on the planet could imagine.
“Then I passed the lightly loaded blade point of my grandfather’s pocket knife under our noses, and we snorted like communion scholars complaining about the Host.”
Occasionally they even sound wise,
“A man can make a happy woman sad but he can’t make a sad woman happy.”
Of course, Crumley was married 5 times so this might be more true in the particular than the general. And there’s no talking about Crumley’s writing without mentioning the opening sentence of The Last Good Kiss –often credited with being the best opening line in all of crime fiction, if not all of fiction,
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 of a fine spring afternoon.
As usual with Crumley it’s the combination of the beautiful and the absurd – there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 ways that you can combine nine words in the English language and 6 of them are better than ‘drinking the heart out of a fine spring afternoon’. And nobody, not a single person, not if we survive past the explosion of this sun and onto the next, writes about an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts without scratching it out and trying again. You have to be a little messed up to know enough to leave that alone. What’s amazing though is that Crumley wrote lines as good as that on dozens of pages. In fact, he wrote an opening line almost as good for The Mexican Tree Duck and decided to bury it on page 10,
When the cowcatcher on the engine pulling the 3:12 fast freight to Spokane hit the jukebox, the high thin voice sang one last empty screaming wail that died quickly beneath the splintering steel wheels.
He supported the amazing prose with absolutely memorable characters, stumbling , drunken, bleary-eyed superheroes who could leap buildings in a single bound… if they has scored enough crank. Nothing in moderation… including kindness or cruelty.
James Crumley’s books, even from relatively early in his career, are meditations on aging and mortality. That life - once you’re fully aware you’re in it…once you understand that the sun is above and behind you - is shadowed by dissipation and the certainty of death. You don’t title a book ‘The Last Good Kiss’ without having come to terms with the fact that life, if you live past 35, is marked by a sense of loss. (Hey, it’s not me …it’s Crumley.)
But I get why writers like him better than readers (and writers love him - I had never heard of Crumley until I started reading interviews with writers I liked and it seemed like every one of them mentioned Crumley). His plots meander like a Rocky Mountain switchback. The plots always seemed addled – drug-addled, booze-addled, blood-addled, as if the constraints of following a linear story from a starting point to an ending place is just too much to ask. He was a mad genius who should have simply been allowed to wander the mountains and valleys telling strange tales as he went and relying on the kindness of strangers for food and lodging. The man just makes inexplicably weird events happen and then hangs cool characters and once-in-a-lifetime, best-in-class prose off of them. These are stories Hunter S Thompson or William Burroughs might have written if they had written crime fiction…and been better writers.
Crumley’s last book, The Right Madness, is as erratically plotted and capricious as any book I’ve ever read… a 6 foot tall female dominatrix/ rapist just for color – really ? Just to spice things up a little? A client’s wife who cuts off her own hands because… well, I can’t really remember why but it sure as hell caught my attention. Characters stumble in and out of scenes as if they’ve wandered off the pages of some other book and can’t find their way back and so the only way out is to die gruesomely. And through all that he is still a poet, he still writes unforgettable sentences, sentences as clean as a one punch KO, on the button and out. And when Crumley takes the time to link those sentences to a plot with most of its pieces, he creates masterpieces. Masterpieces like The Last Good Kiss or The Final Country.
But ultimately with Crumley, it’s the writing, not the story – you’re reading for the next sentence not the last one.
I am an ecologist, conservation biologist and writer. I’m working on my 11th novel. The third, LONG TRAIN HOME was published by Level Best Books in the spring of 2022 and the sixth, BOOM BOOM'S LAST CALL, will release in the spring of 2023. Originally from Ottawa, Ontario I work at the University of New Brunswick and live with my wife Kim in Saint John, New Brunswick.
#6 James Crumley (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#7 - Don Winslow
(Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#8 Dennis Lehane - (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#9 Michael Connolly
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#10 Robert Crais - (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
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