Noel King’s final 2005 interview with the late crime writer James Crumley will appear here tomorrow, but first King remembers the man.
MEETING JAMES CRUMLEY by NOEL KING
In late May 1996 I drove up out of Wyoming, through the top left hand corner of Yellowstone National Park, past the icy beauty of the Grand Tetons, into Montana, the place they call “the last good place.” After a drizzly day driving interstate 90 I arrived early one evening in Missoula, hometown of James Crumley, self-described “bastard child of Raymond Chandler,” and a writer whose most recent novel, The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) broke a ten year silence, sold forty thousand in hardback and won the Dashiell Hammett Award for Best Literary Crime Novel from the International Association of Crime Writers.
Missoula is so full of writers that French television makes documentaries about it. No-one knows why writers come to Montana in general and Missoula in particular, least of all the writers. Crumley suggested they could be attracted to the primeval mud deposited beneath the town. Aside from Crumley, Bill Kittredge and native American writer James Welch lived there, James Lee Burke had recently settled there, staying part of each year Richard Ford had lived there until a few years earlier, David Lynch was raised there, and the wonderful poet Richard Hugo lived there until his death in 1982.
A little north of Missoula are stunning wilderness areas: Glacier National Park beckons and Flathead Lake will keep you looking admiringly for quite a while. Native American sites are nearby, Flathead Indian Reservation and Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and a half-day drive in any direction on the smaller roads will take you through mountains, past meadows, clear rivers and streams, through the small towns and a landscape of beautiful emptiness captured with elegiac affection in Hugo’s poems and Crumley’s novels.
Although I had been drawn to Missoula by Crumley’s writing, on a kind of literary skip-trace, I wasn’t expecting to meet him. I figured he’d be in Hollywood doing screenplays; his novels had been gift enough and the epigraph for one of them, The Last Good Kiss (1978) guided me to Hugo’s poetry (“You might come here Sunday on a whim/Say your life broke down/The last good kiss you had was years ago”) so I owed him that as well.
Later that first evening, sitting in The Depot, a bar-restaurant at the bottom end of the town, near the old railway, I was finishing a nice meal and drinking nice wine, musing that the statuesque clean-scrubbed beauty of the barmaids and waitresses was another reason to call Montana the “last good place,” when a happy, noisy group of six or seven people settled at the table next to mine, one of those high off the ground tables with stool-chairs. They’d come from the restaurant proper and were continuing to smoke, drink and chat. One member of their party had his back to me, a large, powerful torso gentrified into a blue-striped Brooks Brothers shirt. Even though one never means to eavesdrop, conversation carries in those contexts, and I kept hearing the phrase “dancing bear” moving in and out of the conversation. After a while I called over the tall beauty who’d been looking after my food and drink needs and told her I’d heard that phrase, that it was the title of a book by a guy called James Crumley who lived in Missoula, was he one of the people at the table? “Sure, that’s him there,” pointing at the Brooks Brothers shirt.
Immediate problem. How big a dag do you want to make of yourself? Answer, who cares? You’re a long way from home. So I waited until the table had thinned to just the blocky, bearded Crumley and another bearded offsider. The waitress paved the way for me to their table and next thing I’m drinking and chatting with the man whose writing caused me to be in a bar in Missoula in the first place. After talking for half an hour we arranged to meet late afternoon the next day to go to a bar and then do an interview at his place in Whitaker Drive in the hills above Missoula before I headed off to other parts of Montana.
Crumley’s account of his decade’s literary silence was simple: “Shit, man, it just wasn’t happening.” What was happening was a collection of short fictional pieces, novel fragments and journalism (The Muddy Fork) and a series of unproduced screenplays of some of his own novels (The Last Good Kiss, Dancing Bear) and other adaptations (Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, Judge Dredd). Writing unproduced screenplays can be a lucrative business but it can also be dispiriting: the work is not out there in public circulation.
Even before he went silent for that ten year period, Crumley had not been a prolific writer. His reputation as the finest American crime writer since Chandler was based on three books written across an eight year period: The Wrong Case (1975), The Last Good Kiss (1978) and Dancing Bear (1983). Rock and roll magazines and sophisto rags like The Village Voice had always liked Crumley’s writing but his cult reputation was given a literary imprimatur when Harper’s magazine announced, “What Raymond Chandler did for the Los Angeles of the thirties, James Crumley does for the roadside West of today.” The entry on Crumley in The Encyclopaedia of Crime and Mystery Writers gives a lively sense of his fictional world. “What makes his books live in the reader’s mind and blood is the accumulation of small, crazy encounters, full of confusion and muddley disorder and despair. What one remembers about them is the graphic violence and sweetly casual sex, the coke-snorting and alcohol guzzling, the endless drives through mountain snowscapes and long pit stops at seedy back woods bars, the sympathetic outcasts—psycho Viet vets, Indians, gentle hippies, rumdrums, and love-seekers. He can move us to accept the dregs of the race as our brothers and sisters, to feel the rape of the earth; in short he can write scenes that seem never to have been written before.” The same entry sees the prevailing mood of the books as “wacked out post-Vietnam empathy with all sorts of dopers, dropouts, losers and loonies.”
The Vietnam reference is important. Crumley said that his fiction is as close to the writing of Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers) as it is to any models of detective fiction, and his first novel, One to Count Cadence (1969) was one of the earliest of the “Vietnam” fictions (its reference was the Korean war) that would become such a significant sub-genre in post-1960s American novel and film. References to Vietnam continue across Crumley’s later novels and he told The Armchair Detective that Vietnam was the lie that ruined America. “Most all of my adult male friends were Vietnam vets. About everybody who went to that war came back changed. I don’t think anything has happened in this country since the war that’s not somehow related to it.”
Cadence sold well for a first novel, received good reviews and was bought by Hollywood, temporarily and unexpectedly moving Crumley into a very un-first-novelist tax bracket. There was a six year wait between first and second novel, time for two marriages and divorces and time for a genre shift to detective fiction. The next book came after Crumley’s first stint in Missoula and after meeting Richard Hugo. “Dick was integral to my crime-writing life because he turned me on to Chandler. He couldn’t believe I’d never read any.” They were chatting one day and Hugo expressed his admiration for Chandler’s writing, prompting Crumley to read some on a trip to Mexico. What attracted him to Chandler’s writing was “mostly the fact that it was really wonderful, fun writing; the general sense of fun, the sentences were fun, and that appealed to me. As far as crime writers go, I guess I was inspired by Nicolas Freeling and Raymond Chandler; they’re the two disparate ends of my scale.”
Crumley began writing his first detective novel, The Wrong Case, against the genre only to find himself captivated by it. It remained his favourite novel and his fondness for the book was a fondness for its central character, the hugely engaging figure of Milton Chester Milodragovitch III, a 39 year old veteran of Korea, former police officer in the small Montana town of Meriwether, now working as a private eye. Milo, as he is known, comes from a wealthy Meriwether family but owing to his mother’s perverse will he can’t get at his inheritance money until he turns 52. Given how much drinking and drugging Milo engages in, it’s line-ball whether he’ll make it to inheritance day. Milo’s weary gloom is further explained by the fact that he is the son of two suicides. His father was a womanising dipsomaniac who died in a shooting “accident” while his mother hanged herself in a “fancy alcoholic retreat in Arizona.” Coming from that gene pool, nearing middle-age, being lied to and deceived by most of the people with whom he comes into contact, it’s no wonder that Milo muses much on the fragility of humankind, meeting the world with a beneficent sadness occasionally alleviated by falling in love with the wrong woman. A reader soon understands why Milo would find “even the simplest life was too complex.”
By the time of Dancing Bear Milo is older and a bit sadder, 47, working night shifts for Haliburton Security and keeping the world at bay by doing lots of cocaine and drinking lots of peppermint schnapps. In 1985 Newsweek ran a feature story on the then-and-still-booming world of crime and mystery writing, singling the character of Milo out for particular praise: “He seems to have wandered into the thriller world from a Jack Kerouac pipe dream.” Accolades also came from distinguished peers such as Elmore Leonard. When he reviewed Dancing Bear Leonard had been clean and sober for about six years, and he marvelled at Milo’s capacity for self-destruction. “Milo hits enough lines of cocaine before the last page to tear his nose off. Drinks enough alcohol to explode a healthy liver. But there’s enough energy in Crumley’s writing to keep the reader rooting for Milton Chester Milodragovitch III all the way. There is the hope his reward will be, at the least, detoxification. So he can come back again, soon.”
Dancing Bear earned a different sort of praise by being issued as one of the first package of Vintage Contemporaries (organised by Gary Fisketjon) which saw Crumley placed alongside Raymond Carver (Cathedral) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City). Vintage followed up by bringing out a uniform edition of all Crumley’s novels.
Dancing Bear opens with a comic sequence in which a hung-over postman wakes a hung-over Milo and tries to get him to sign for a letter. It is early winter and the postie is wearing ill-fitting shorts and a short-sleeved shirt because his wife has hurled out all of his clothes after an argument. An absurd wrestling match starts and ends when Milo’s neighbour (and occasional bonk) turns a hose on the combatants. Cold, wet, they go inside to share a restorative drink. The letter is from a rich elderly woman who was once the lover of Milo’s father. In it she asks Milo to indulge an old friend by finding out all he can about a couple she has watched meet in the woods near her mansion. Of course, in detective fiction such requests are never what they seem and before long Milo is caught up in a complicated narrative involving drug smuggling and toxic waste despoliation of the north-west countryside, as he travels across the wintry landscapes of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. Milo, Montana and winter form a funny triad. Milo is always dreaming of leaving Meriwether and Montana, a dream that crowds in on him every winter. He dreams of going south, maybe to Mexico, searching for “sunshine and simplicity.” But at the end of Dancing Bear, he only gets as far as California before turning back home, back “into the heart of one of the worst Montana winters in years.”
Crumley had no desire to leave Montana, having spent thirty years in Missoula since coming there to teach in the mid-1960s after getting an MA from the distinguished Iowa Writers Workshop. Over the years he made occasional sorties to LA for film work and El Paso for short-term teaching stints but most of the time was spent in Missoula, writing. Five times married, with five children and five grandchildren and alimony payments that no doubt helped to concentrate the mind wonderfully, Crumley said that he thought he was meant to live in Montana, that he needed empty spaces in his life.
His wife, Martha Elizabeth, is beautiful and a poet whom he said saved him from some Milo-like tendencies towards self-destruction. Martha was off visiting her mother in Richmond, Virginia as we chatted in his lounge-room in the house in Whitaker Drive in the hills south of Missoula, over a couple of six-packs of Labatt’s Blue. At least four cats prowled around the room, fretting for the absent Martha as the TV ran constantly on a sports channel and as background music was provided by the latest tapes of Los Lobos and Steve Earle. The tapes had been given to Crumley by John Williams who had been through town to do a piece on James Lee Burke. Williams has a vivid chapter on Crumley in Into the Badlands (1991), his book on American crime writers, in which he chases him through a series of bars in and around Missoula, winding up wasted and doing a lot of damage to a rental car. As Steve Earle sang, Crumley spoke of the attraction Missoula held for him.
Crumley was 5’ 10” and you could still see the footballer and oil-field worker in the strong body. You could also see the consequences of a lifetime’s attachment to alcohol, for Crumley is what the French call, politely, a “grand buveur.” He’d already told me that Missoula used to be a great bar town (“you used to be able to walk into a bar on Railroad Street and go out back doors, all the way down to the river without getting onto a sidestreet”) and he was straightforward about the relation between drinking and writing: “I’ve always been a hard drinker. My friends are all writers and writers seem to drink hard. The only writers I know who don’t drink destructively come out of a background where it was OK to be an intellectual.”
Crumley didn’t come from such a background and one could sense an uneasiness, still felt at age 57, at being a working-class Texan kid who somehow sneaked into the world of letters. Born in 1939 in Three Rivers, Texas, of Scotch-Irish descent, his father was an oilfield supervisor and Crumley also rough-necked for many years. At the end of the 1950s, after a short stint in the navy on a destroyer in the Atlantic, he shifted to do three years in the army, much of it in the Philippines. Several years of mixing study, football and rough-necking saw him receive a BA in History from Texas A & I. He’d planned to do a PhD in Soviet Studies at the University of Washington but was accepted into the famous Iowa Writers Workshop in 1964 (it was the time that Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren taught there), supporting himself by tending bar and working as a janitor, getting his MA in 1966.
Crumley’s other series character, C. W. Sughrue (pronounced “‘sugh’ as in ‘sugar,’ and ‘rue’ as in ‘rue the goddamned day’”), extracted from a long-unfinished Texas novel, comes from a social locale quite different from Milo’s and shares some of the author’s bio-data. Sughrue appeared in 1978 in The Last Good Kiss, the book that started all the buzz about Crumley being the best thing since Chandler, and he reappeared fifteen years later in The Mexican Tree Duck. Sughrue is Texan, working-class, ex-Vietnam and this was my alibi for asking Crumley if he thought of himself as a displaced Texan. “Well, I was always displaced. I was born in Texas but we went to New Mexico during WW2. We didn’t move back to Texas until I was in the second grade. The part of Texas where I lived is the last place where there’s a great clash between the white minority and the Mexican American majority, where people are still race conscious in a really silly way. It’s an unhappy kind of place, it’s hot and humid, and the wind blows nine months out of the year. It was never a place that I was ever going back to once I left, although circumstances have forced me back a couple of times. I don’t think of myself as a Texan, I’ve discovered that I’m not actually a Southerner, I just thought I was a Southerner.”
Although Crumley’s reputation in the crime genre is somewhere between the cult and the revered senior practitioner, his writing puzzled critics by sitting between genre writing and more literary writing and by mixing laughter and violence in a way the Coen brothers would admire. “I think I confuse people. I’m not writing detective novels and I’m not writing literary novels, and nobody knows what to do with them. That’s a problem I don’t I have at all in foreign markets. In Germany and Italy I’m in a crime series, in England I’m in Picador, a perfectly legitimate literary press. Now the Italians are bringing my books out in hardback after I had been out in cheap paperbacks; the Greeks have just discovered me. The French have always been very good to me, they put me up in nice places, feed me well, put me on TV with Randy Newman.”
The books that had been important to him over the years make for a very literary list. “Dick Yates’s Revolutionary Road was a big book for me. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet was a really big book in my life, then Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Under the Volcano, and the Russians. Camus, but the philosophy, not so much the novels. In the month I started One to Count Cadence for the last time, I read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Rebel, and The Brothers Karamazov. I finished the book and I remember jumping up and down in the snow in the middle of the night in my shorts in Iowa City, shouting out ‘Hooray for Karamazov, you motherfuckers!’”
Perhaps surprisingly, given the genre in which he earned his fame, but unsurprisingly given that list of his reading interests, Crumley’s prose occasionally recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald and often is very close to the sentiments conveyed in the poetry of his friend, Richard Hugo. Each explores the elegiac moment and constructs classic scenes of regret. When Nick Carraway breaks up with Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby by saying he’s too old to lie to himself and call it honour, it comes close to all of Milo’s hapless encounters with women. Whereas Nick says, “Angry and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away,” Milo says, at the end of The Wrong Case, “As I stood there the blunt shadows of the western ridge advanced darkly to the verge of the creek. I sat down, heard the sound of the car driving away, I drank my beer, and forgave her.”
Crumley’s writing of regret also targets the loss of possibilities of another kind, concerning landscape. Part of the inspiration for Dancing Bear came from Michael Brown’s Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals (1981) and an eco-politics underlies all Crumley’s evocations of the rivers, lakes, mountains and meadows of the Pacific Northwest. In Dancing Bear Milo says, “On a bright sunny day I could have seen Mount Rainier looming like a misshapen moon on the horizon, and even through the fog and rain I thought I could feel its rocky weight.”
When asked what bits of his writing he liked best, Crumley said he liked the part in The Last Good Kiss “when Sughrue recalls the time his father ties him to the back of the motorbike and takes him up to see the snow at Estes peak—I kind of like that.” Who wouldn’t? It’s one of Crumley’s finest evocations of landscape and memory: “On the way home, tied once more to his back with baking twine, I slept, my cold skin like fire, and dreamed of blizzards and frozen lakes, a landscape sheathed in ice, but I was warm somehow, wrapped in the furs of bears and beaver and lynx, dreaming of ice as the motorbike split the night.”
That late 60s, early 70s period of American history involving the transition from Johnson to Nixon, the consequences of the Vietnam War and Watergate, marked Crumley the person as it does the characters in his fiction. We stumbled onto the topic of Nixon when he told me he was working on a new book. It was a Milo book in which Milo has gone to live in Austin but I mistook it for the long-promised Texas novel, then apologised for raising that topic, saying he must get sick of people asking him whether he’s finished that book. “Well, I’m the one that didn’t finish the son-of-a-bitch. I haven’t forgotten about it and I’ve got a frame for it. It begins on the day of Nixon’s resignation.” Crumley chuckled as he recalled how he encountered that historic event. “I was living on Vashon Island at the time, riding bikes with a friend of mine who teaches up there. We walked into a store to have a beer and there was no-one in the front of the store. It was an old hippie kind of place and I hollered out, and they said ‘come in the back here, fuckin’ Nixon’s resigning on TV.’ So we sat there, smoked dope and drank beer while the son-of-a-bitch went to the grave.” I asked whether this opinion had mellowed over the years, taking account of the mini-redemption Nixon achieved in retirement, his part in the recognition of China and so on. Smoke was exhaled and a longish pause allowed some more of a Steve Earle tape to float around the room and one of the four cats to stroll past before an unforgiving reply came forth. “Nixon was the whore-dog of American politics. He had no honour, no decency. I didn’t find anything even vaguely amusing about Nixon. An old friend of mine, Mike Koepf, and I stayed on the phone all through the televised burial of Nixon. We both had FBI files, and I was the Vietnam Veteran’s Against the War faculty adviser at Colorado State, and I was a SDS affiliate.”
In 1985 Crumley had said that he hoped one day to prove that his two series characters, Sughrue and Milo, were distinct fictional entities by “writing a novel using both voices. They like each other; they know each other.” At the end of The Mexican Tree Duck Sughrue describes the day that his “old partner” comes into his bar, Slumgullions, spruced up and ready to go claim his inheritance. Only trouble is he’s a year early. Bordersnakes (1996) is the book Crumley alluded to more than a decade earlier. The book begins with the two old buddies each having something to prove and to find. A lawyer has absconded with Milo’s inheritance money and Sughrue has narrowly escaped being killed in a bar-room brawl that was actually a paid hit. The book is narrated turn-about by both Milo and Sughrue as they go travelling far from Montana.
Since he had waited twenty years to let loose his two series characters in the one book, I asked him what Milo and Sughrue afforded him as a writer. “The older character, Milo, gives me a character with a real sense of moral ethics and an approach to the world which involves kindness rather than violence, although he’s willing to be violent when it’s necessary, I guess. And the Sughrue character is just reckless and crazy and he’s not afraid of anything. That’s one of the things that starts this new book off. Sughrue is afraid now. Something has happened and he’s learned fear. So he and Milo go off on a double-edged jaunt, looking for Milo’s money and looking for Sughrue’s revenge and everything comes up fairly well for everybody, except for the bad guys; it’s almost all set in west Texas and California. Milo and Sughrue go all over the country, their friendship is put to the test and is not found wanting.” He smiled as he added, “I don‘t think there’s any scenes in Montana at all. Everybody writes about Montana now.”
I was heading out of Missoula the next morning to drive around other parts of Montana, so I asked Crumley what parts of the country he had written about so memorably he liked to visit.
“Chico Hot Springs is a place I’ve always liked. We spend a week there in the summer with the kids and another week during the year when we can get away. We try to float the Smith River every year. It’s a four day float over into the Missouri River, White Shell Fish Plains. I still like to drive up to Glacier, go through the park, and I still like Yellowstone. Even with the tourists there, it’s always impressive.” Suddenly the voice brightened into the tone used earlier when giving nostalgic information on what a great bar town Missoula used to be. “There’s tons of little towns in Montana you can stop at, stop and have a beer. You buy the first one, they buy the next one.” I quoted from the opening paragraph of The Last Good Kiss, next thing, you’re “drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” He smiled and lifted his Labatt, “That’s for sure.”
In late September 2005, during the Montana Festival for the Book which was held in Missoula, I was able to see Jim Crumley again, for what would be the last time. I was waiting outside The Depot when he was driven up by a friend (Jim was recovering from some health problems) and it was terrific to see that smiling bulk again, have a guy-hug and head on into the bar for drink, food and conversation. That continued over the next couple of days and evenings, and it was good to meet some of Jim and Martha’s close friends, and also good to meet Martha (see under ‘beautiful’ above) and buy a couple of her poetry books from a Missoula independent bookseller. Jim, Martha and some of those friends were gathered around an outside table when the interview printed below took place.
This introduction must end with a sad coda. In September 2008 I was again driving around the Pacific Northwest heading down from Oregon to California, loving how reindeer and elk would dart across roads and highways (and walk all over Ashland during its theatre season) when I turned on my car radio to hear Jim Crumley talking. It was a younger-voiced Jim Crumley than I had encountered in 1996 and 2005, and the interview ended with Jim telling a story about a crime story he had written when he was about eight years old, called “The Brown Case.” As he recalled it contained a sentence that referred to ‘the Brown case’ and the reply came, “The Brown case? What Brown case?” and he felt that offered a neat summary of his crime-writing life to that point. By then the penny had dropped, that I was hearing an archival interview, and the female announcer’s voice duly said that listeners had been hearing an interview with Jim Crumley. That terrible present-past tense usage confirmed the dreadful thought as fact. Jim Crumley was dead at age 68, too young: that blocky strong body, the talent for writing and for conversation, all that ‘other’ reading he did, mainly history but also poetry and also blurbing friends’ books (and strangers’ if he liked the book). Of course it would hit Martha hardest and his family and close friends but it is testimony to the kind of person Jim Crumley was that hearing this sad information prompted me, an Australian who had met him for about one week across two visits a decade apart (plus a few telephone conversations), to pull over to the edge of the highway and shed some tears.
[And here’s the Interview: Always Lookin’ For A Book, Lookin’ For A Title]
© 2012 Noel King
from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
A different version of this piece appeared as
‘Bar and Grill: A profile of James Crumley’ in HQ Magazine July / August 1997
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NOEL KING teaches film studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. His other interviews with writers include Martin Cruz Smith, William McIlvanney, Scott Phillips, Craig Holden, Barry Gifford and his interviews with publishers include Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, London (now part of Profile Books), Francois von Hurter of Bitter Lemon Press, London, and Dennis McMillan, Tucson, Arizona.