from issue #6: ‘Sissa’ by Jon A. Jackson

SISSA: An extract from Not So Dead


 April 14, 1931

THIS IS A STORY told me by Miss Harriet (Sissa) Hartsfield, of Butte, Montana, when she was about 35 years old. I composed this from memory, within an hour of the relation of the story, when Miss Hartsfield had left. I didn’t take notes during the telling, but I don’t believe I left anything out and this seems to be just what she said. —B.S.

I was just sixteen when old Mrs. St. Ives carried me up to Montana. I was born in Texas, in the town of Singletree. My Mama was housekeeper for Mrs. St. Ives.  So when Mrs. St. Ives went to visit her son, Mr. Gaylord St. Ives, not long after his marriage, she got the notion that he needed a proper housekeeper. My Mama must have told her that I was trained for that, because she took me up there and I have never been back to Texas, since. I can’t say that I care about that, except that I only saw my Mama one more time before she died, when she came up to Butte a few years later, with old Mrs. St. Ives.  She died two years ago, and I feel just awfully sad that we never got to spend any more time together than we did. She was a good Christian woman, she had a good life with people who loved her and who she loved, and I know she is in Heaven now.

The thing that most sticks in my mind about that journey from Texas, which was the first time I ever rode on a train, is that the minute I got to Butte it seemed like Mrs. Hazel St. Ives didn’t want me around. But it must not have been clear to the old lady, Mr. St. Ives’s mother, because she left me there after she went home a month later, and I don’t think she knew what was likely to become of me.  She must have thought I would work into the job of keeping Mr. St. Ives’s house. I don’t think she would have left me there if she didn’t think I was going to work out.

That was in 1911, about a week before Christmas, when we got there. Lord, was it cold! Some say it was twenty-below, but it was colder than I knew it could be. The train had to run very slow at times because they had to heat the switches so that they would work, so I was told. I could see the men out on the tracks, building little fires. When old Mrs. St. Ives left it felt even colder.

I don’t know why Mrs. Hazel didn’t take to me. Some girls I got to know later would smile and shake their heads, as if I was silly. They said it was plain as day why she didn’t want me around. It was all about Mr. St. Ives.  But I never hardly saw Mr. St. Ives until after his mother left and the very next day he took me downtown to Ma Ling’s house.  I should have known then, but I was only sixteen and I’d been brought up proper in my Mama’s house down in Singletree, a good church girl. I went all the way through the eighth grade and always did well, but they don’t tell you about these kinds of things in a country school, or Sunday School.

But even a good church girl knows something, especially if she’s a Negro. My Mama told me some things, and my aunties, and my girl friends, what they call “the facts of life.” So I guess I understood a little bit about what was going on. And to tell you the truth, it scared me to death. But it was kind of exciting, too.

Ma Ling was a Chinawoman. She was the first Chinese person I ever knew. She was always very good to me, but I guess most people would say she was not a good woman.  She owned a whorehouse, but I didn’t know it was a whorehouse, right yet. It wasn’t on Venus Alley, downtown, but it was in an apartment building close by. Let me say right now, Ma Ling did not let anything happen to me. I mean nothing at all. On the way down there I sat in the back of Mr. St. Ives’s car and he never said a word until we got down there and then all he said was I had to stay there, it was the best he could do for now, and if I needed anything, I should just ask Ma Ling. So I just stayed there. Ma Ling didn’t tell me much. She was a close-mouthed woman at all times, and Mr. St. Ives must have told her to keep her mouth shut. Maybe he didn’t know himself what he was doing. So while it was freezing and the wind was howling outside and you couldn’t hardly see down the mountain, I just stayed in Ma Ling’s place with nothing to do but read magazines and books and sit and fret.

There were several other girls in that place, some of them quite a bit older, grown-up women, but I didn’t visit with all of them, just three or four. They all seemed to me to be very pretty, even beautiful. They wore mostly fancy bedroom clothes, dressing gowns and kimonos and chemises, but sometimes they got dressed up very elegantly, when they were going out. One of them that I got to know was an Indian girl, about eighteen, named Veronica, and the two others that I mostly talked to were white girls, Mary Lou and JoBeth. Veronica was from Montana, from somewhere “up on the High Line,” she said. She was a Cree Indian. Mary Lou was a jolly blonde girl from Seattle and JoBeth was a skinny dark-haired girl from California, from a town I never heard of, but I think it was in the mountains, where a wagon train of settlers got snowed in and ate each other. The others I didn’t see much and never got to know them. They came and went. They were all whores, but I didn’t know that, at first.

I guess I must have known what a whore was already, but it wasn’t real clear to me. I had heard of the Whore of Babylon, in church, but I didn’t see any connection to these girls. But I soon understood. The girls I knew had little apartments, not like mine, which had a parlor and a bedroom with its own bath.  They lived in single bedrooms and shared a bath down the hall. But they entertained men in another room, any of several rooms on the other side of the building.

What is there to say? I know what it was all about now, but it’s hard to recollect just how much I knew then. I believe I knew more than I was supposed to know, for a good little church girl. I didn’t know everything, but I knew about boys and girls and babies, and whatever Veronica and Mary Lou and JoBeth told me, it seemed like I already knew it. But maybe I’m just not remembering it right.

Anyway, I was quite a few weeks in that house, being bored, even working around the house for something to do, cleaning, dusting, washing up, do some sewing, helping out, even though Ma Ling said I didn’t have to do any of that. And all the time I didn’t know what was going to happen and I was wondering if my Mama knew where I was, even. I didn’t have any letters from her, or from my aunties, and I was very worried about what was going to become of me and what they would be thinking. I didn’t write anything, or even ask to. I was too afraid. Ma Ling told me to be patient, everything would be all right.

And then, one night, Mr. St. Ives came. He was about thirty-five, a handsome man, tall and slim. He was always so very well-dressed. He had kind of a dark look, like he was frowning all the time, and sometimes he could seem like he was mad, or sneering. But that night he was drunk. Not falling down drunk, but not steady on his feet, neither. And he was talking loud. I heard him talking to Ma Ling. Her apartment, which was quite large and grand, was right before mine, directly down the hall. Anybody coming into that building would have to go by her apartment and down a narrow passage to get to my own rooms. I imagine that is why I was in those rooms.

I heard Mr. St. Ives talking and I went and cracked the door and peeped and I saw him out at the end of the hall, next to the big staircase in the middle of the entrance lobby. My hallway was dark, as always, so I knew he wouldn’t see me. Ma Ling was standing inside the door to her rooms, so I couldn’t see her. He was leaning on the doorway with his arm outstretched, talking into the opening, arguing, and sometimes he would lurch back and lean against the staircase. He was saying that he wanted to see me, that “it was time.” But Ma Ling seemed to be arguing against it. I couldn’t hear her words, but I caught the sing-song of her voice. I think she was telling him to go away. And she must have tried to close her door, but he lunged forward and held it open.

“Well, by God,” he bellowed, like an old bull, “I’ll just take the little bitch out of here, then!”

But then, suddenly, Ma Ling’s hand reached out and pulled him into the rooms and the door closed and nothing happened. I finally closed my door and locked it and sat in a chair for a long time. I tried to read. Ma Ling and some of the girls had given me some novels to read, to help pass the time. The one I was trying to read was A Girl of the Limberlost, which was about a young girl in Indiana who catches moths. The girls thought I should like it, but it seemed very strange to me. Anyway, I put it down. I couldn’t read now. But nothing happened and finally I went to bed.

The next morning, Ma Ling came to see me and said I must be prepared to entertain Mr. St. Ives. He would come to see me, but she didn’t know when, how soon. She asked me if I was a virgin. A week or two before this, I would have been embarrassed by the question. Now, since I had talked to Veronica and Mary Lou and JoBeth, I was almost embarrassed to admit that I was. Ma Ling was not going to take my word for it, however. She insisted on examining me. Now I was embarrassed. But she was the kind of woman who doesn’t make any big show of things. She was firm, careful, and businesslike. That calmed me. She was satisfied after her examination and she gave me some advice.

“You don’t know what to do,” she said. “That’s okay. He expect that. Do you not want to give in?”

I didn’t know what she meant. “Give in… what?” I said.

Ma Ling suddenly became angry. “I will not have it,” she said. “If you refuse, I will not have it in my house. He cannot make me.”

I was afraid now. I thought she meant that I might have to go. But where? I had heard the girls talk about being “out on the street.” They talked about it with fear. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but if I had to go out on the street… It was so cold! So bitterly cold! I would die.

I think Ma Ling realized that I had misunderstood. I was scared, she could tell. She said something about ”rape.” She would not tolerate rape.

I knew what rape was, or I thought I did. Mama had talked about rape. I don’t mean she talked to me about it, but I used to hear her talking to my aunties about it, and her friends. Seemed like they talked about it a lot. It was a serious thing. It was against the law, but it was also very bad for the girl who was raped. Rape was very bad, awful. It was painful and it caused bleeding. That’s what I understood, but I didn’t know what was involved, obviously. A girl was always in danger of it, it seemed like. I had an idea that some girls got raped and it was their own fault, something they did that was wrong.  ”She brought it on herself,” was what I heard. This was an idea that my girlfriends down in Singletree talked about often. I wasn’t sure how it applied to me, now. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I didn’t think. I wasn’t doing anything at all.

I told Ma Ling I wasn’t sure, but I would try to be good and not be raped. But Ma Ling looked at me and she just shook her head. I was scared, but not unwilling to do what she thought I should do. I wasn’t refusing to entertain Mr. St. Ives.

Ma Ling was still upset, but she said maybe it would be okay. Maybe it would be for the best. She told me that Mr. St. Ives was a very rich man, very powerful. “If he wants you he will have you,” she said. But she warned me that men are stupid. She said, sometimes a man like Mr. St. Ives, if he didn’t know how to get what he wanted by talking, by acting like gentleman, like with his wife, he might get tough. He might take what he wanted by force. “You don’t want him to act like that,” she told me. I could get hurt, if he got angry. “You got to help him to get what he wants,” she said. But then she warned me: “Remember! Don’t act like you already know! He don’t like that.” I was so confused, I had no idea what she was talking about.

So Ma Ling showed me how to act: to be shy, to resist a little but not too much, to not seem knowing, to let him show me what he wanted, to be patient, but if he got confused I should lead him on without seeming to. This was the way. And she showed me just what might happen. She would be nearby, just in case. I was not to worry.

But I was very anxious and naturally I asked the girls. Veronica laughed. It was easy, she said. “Don’t you worry. He’s got his mind on one thing. He won’t notice what you’re doing, as long as you don’t scream and run away.” And Mary Lou said if I was lucky and he wasn’t drunk it would be all right, no problem, just like Veronica said, but JoBeth thought it would be better if he was a little drunk. They argued about that. In the end they thought that there was nothing I could do about that. I couldn’t act like a professional and offer him whiskey. I’d just have to wait and see how he showed up.

Two nights later he returned. Ma Ling brought him to my door, then left. I was alarmed at that, but she had told me she would be just outside the door, just in case. He came in and sat down, then got up and wandered about, looking at things. He said he was just checking on me, to see how I was getting along. He asked me if I was comfortable. I said I was. He said he had heard from my mother. I was so excited! What did she write? But he said it was just that she missed me, she was thinking about me, she was well. I should write to her and tell her that I was all right. Did I have a pen, paper? Stamps? Did I know how to write?

Oh, yes, I assured him that I could write good. But, I told him that I didn’t have any stationery or pens or stamps. And he said he would see that I had some. I thanked him but I said I didn’t know what I should write. Could I tell her that I was staying with Ma Ling? Could I tell her about Veronica and Mary Lou and JoBeth?

Oh, God no, that wouldn’t do, he said. He seemed to be confused, or worried, standing there trying to think. Then he said I would be up at the house, eventually. He didn’t know how soon, but pretty soon. In the meantime, there was no point in making my Mama worry, or his Mama, for that matter, ‘cause she was bound to hear about it from my Mama if I said anything. He said that under his breath, almost, but I understood and I nodded to let him know. He seemed grateful.

He explained that his wife, Miz Hazel, he called her, was a bit high strung. It had nothing to do with me, really, but with his mother and Miz Hazel’s feelings about her own house and having her own people about her. I told him I understood. He was glad to see that I was such a smart and mature young lady, he said. He was happy that we could talk so comfortably. He asked if I minded if he took off his overcoat. I said no, of course not. Then he sat down with the coat folded in his lap. Pretty soon he fished out a little leather-covered flask and asked me if he could bother me for a glass. There was a little room back by the bath, which I called my kitchen. It was no bigger than a closet, hardly, but there was a sink and some cabinets and little table where I sometimes ate the dinner that Ma Ling would have her servant bring me. I had some nice little crystal glasses that Ma Ling had provided. I ran and got Mr. St. Ives a glass.

When I got back, he had set the coat aside and was holding a cigar. He asked if I minded if he smoked. I said no, of course not, and fetched him a saucer to use for an ashtray. He poured himself some whiskey and lit his cigar and began to talk.

That night he told me about growing up down in Texas. He knew the little village of Singletree very well, he said. He had often ridden over that way. There was a famous well over that way, he recalled. Did I know it? I must. I told him I did, of course. It was the artesian well, or spring, at Nahor. He used to go bird hunting over that way, he said, and he would water his horse at the spring. He laughed in a shy way and said some of his friends used to flirt with the girls who came to get water at the well for their houses. Did I ever go to the well? I told him I went to the well, to get water for my Mama’s house. He said he supposed the boys still came to the spring, to flirt with the girls. Did I ever go with any of those boys? Oh, no, I said, my Mama would have whipped me. He said that was good. My Mama was right.

He knew right where our house was, in Singletree, near the railroad tracks. “I believe your daddy was a railroad man, wasn’t he?” he asked. I said I guessed that was so, but I hadn’t known him. He had died when I was little. Mr. St. Ives said he knew my whole family, my Daddy, who he said was a fine man, a good worker. Uncle Dub, he called him. It was a bad accident that killed him, he said. He knew my older brothers, who were in the army and served honorably, and my older sisters. He knew their names. And my aunties. He remembered Aunt Sister, especially. She was the pretty one. Everyone called her Sissa and I looked very much like her. Would I mind if he called me Sissa?

I laughed. I’d called her Aunt Sissa, too. It seemed funny that he would call me Sissa. But I said he could, of course.

He told me how he missed Texas, especially in the morning. He had strong memories of morning in Texas, of the way the light was. Especially in the fall, the late fall, November. “It’s not the same light here,” he said. “Here the light comes over the mountain. Out there, it gradually grows, covering the sky, and then the sun just pops up out of the earth.” He went on about that. How the sun rises out of the earth, gathering its strength, gradually growing like a symphony orchestra, almost. It was like poetry, the way he said it. I had never heard a symphony orchestra, at that time, but I seemed to hear it, the strings, quiet at first, then getting louder, and finally the horns joining in. And then a great crash of the cymbals. It was thrilling to hear him talk about it.  But all of a sudden, he got up and put on his coat and left. Just like that, without another word!

I was a little disappointed, to be honest. I had gotten over my fears when he turned out to be so friendly and all, and then I got to remembering what Ma Ling had coached me about and had gotten myself all ready for something different, but it hadn’t happened. I thought, he doesn’t like me. I wondered if it was because I was a Negro.

The girls were amazed when I told them. I made up some things, I admit. I said he hugged me and he kissed me, but he hadn’t even touched me. I couldn’t pretend that anything else had happened. They said that he was just shy, that he would be back.

And they were right. He came back the next night. He started right in where he had left off, about being a boy in Texas, going out in the morning to the horse barns. He loved the smell of the barns, of the horses. He had some horses here, he said, but he had to keep them at a ranch that was miles away and he couldn’t just go and visit them whenever he wanted, not every morning.  He grew up on army posts, he told me. His father had fought in the War Between the States, on the Union side, and after the war had risen to the rank of colonel. I knew there was a Fort near Singletree, but we always just called it the fort. I never knew the name. And his daddy was the colonel, the commander of the fort!

Mr. St. Ives came almost every night for two weeks and he would sit and reminisce while he sipped his whiskey and smoked a cigar. He really seemed to like me, to like my company. Maybe it was because I was from Texas, from his home, and understood what he was talking about. The girls laughed when I told them that. They said it was because of my bosom. Well, it was true, I had developed early. And it was true that Mr. St. Ives would stop and look at me from time to time and shake his head and say, “You’re so mature, Sissa.” But I honestly don’t believe he meant that I was mature that way. I think he meant that I understood him so well. But the girls laughed at that and said, Why do you think his wife wouldn’t have you in the house?

One night, Mr. St. Ives said he felt so bad about keeping me up to all hours, that a pretty young thing like me needed her beauty sleep. I said I was fine, that I enjoyed hearing him talk about “down home”. But he insisted that I go to bed. He told me I should go put on my nightie and he’d come in and tuck me in when I was ready. So I went and slipped into my nightgown in the bathroom. I thought that something would happen now. But when I got in bed I didn’t know what to do next, so I just lay there. Pretty soon he came and knocked on the door and I said, Come in. And he tiptoed in and made a show of tucking me in. Then he kissed me on the forehead, said goodnight and left.

After that, each evening he would sit and drink and smoke and talk and then tell me to go get ready and be sure to call out when I was ready. And after a couple of nights of this he said he thought he would just lie down next to me and talk a bit until I fell asleep. He would lie on the bed fully dressed, and talk until quite late. The first couple of nights I pretended to fall asleep and he would get up and tiptoe out. But then I got where his voice droning on and on in the darkness actually put me to sleep. And finally, after a couple of nights of this, he said it was kind of cold and did I mind if he just slipped under the covers. I said I wouldn’t mind so he took off his shoes and got in beside me, fully dressed. And that night, at long last, he began to touch me, asking if I minded if he did this, and then that. And, oh, what a long exhausting process it was, of fumbling, touching my breasts, my belly and hips, of kicking off his own clothes, then promising not to hurt me, of oh so careful positioning, and at last, of a bit of pain and finally relief.

Something else was happening, about the same time. I can’t be sure now if it was before Mr. St. Ives first came to visit me at Ma Ling’s, or if it was a week or two later. But about that time another man came to see me. It was a policeman. He was a very tall Negro man, one of the biggest men I ever saw, named Eberhard Mason. First he came to see Ma Ling. She brought him to see me. In my presence, she told him that I was simply a guest, a young girl who had been brought to her by a respectable man who wished to find a safe place for me to stay while he made arrangements for my employment. There was no question of my working in the house, she told him, in her broken lingo. It was just that it was difficult to find a proper temporary residence for a girl of my sort. Meaning a Negro, of course. The policeman could understand that, she was sure. The policeman seemed half-convinced, but he said he’d have to question me, privately.

Ma Ling withdrew. Officer Mason got right to the point. “Who brought you here?” When I told him what I knew I could see he understood the situation, right off. It was a touchy business, he told me. Mr. St. Ives was, as Ma Ling had said, a very powerful man. He worked for the Company and the Company pretty much ran Butte. They had a lot of influence, he said. They had gotten the mayor run out of office and they had their own men in the police. But they didn’t control him. That was almost the only thing they didn’t run, not yet, anyway.

He asked me how old I was. “I want the truth,” he said, and looked me in the eye very sternly, like a preacher. I told him I was sixteen. I couldn’t tell if he believed that. Finally, he said, he’d have to contact my parents. I told him about my Mama and about my Daddy being dead. I told him I was afraid my Mama would be mad, or upset, if she knew what had happened. But Officer Mason said he would check up with authorities in Singletree and find out what he could. He couldn’t promise that my Mama wouldn’t hear about it, but he would try to be discreet, and he’d warn the Singletree police about saying anything, but he couldn’t guarantee what they might say or do. Then he went away, saying he would be back to talk to me again as soon as he learned anything.

I was scared, but I didn’t say anything about Officer Mason’s visit to Mr. St. Ives, and I don’t believe that Ma Ling said anything. I had already written two letters to my Mama, with Mr. St. Ives standing right there to see what I wrote and even telling me what to say. It wasn’t the truth. I said I was working in the house and everything was nice, I missed her and my sisters and brothers and Singletree and all, but the folks up here treated me nice and I was happy. And Mr. St. Ives would take the letters to mail them. I didn’t say what house I was in so, in a way, it wasn’t a black lie, just a white one. That’s how I thought, then.

Officer Mason came back the next night, and every night, after that, in the early evening, before Mr. St. Ives would come. He told me to call him Eberhard, his first name. He liked me, I could tell. At first, he was just interested in finding out about my “situation.” He was very patient, very gentle. He soon got it out of me that Mr. St. Ives had not “touched me,” as he put it. But what, he wondered, were his intentions? I couldn’t say. At least, not then. It looked to me like all the man wanted to do was talk. I told him all about the late night conversations about Mr. St. Ives’s boyhood in Texas.

Eberhard was puzzled. He didn’t seem totally convinced, but what could he do? The man was evidently trying to do something on my behalf, trying to ease a difficult domestic situation. Eberhard was like the girls, he said with a smile that he understood why Mrs. St. Ives had refused to have me in the house. But he said, he was surprised that Mr. St. Ives continued to visit me. If Mrs. St. Ives ever found out, he said, “there would be hell for him in his own house.” He warned me about mentioning his visits to Mr. St. Ives, that it would make him angry. “Better to wait until I hear something from down in Texas,” he said. So each evening, Eberhard would discuss with me what had happened the previous night, what I thought might happen next, and what would be best to do for me.

All of this attention made me even more excited. From being terribly lonely and bored, at first feeling abandoned, not knowing what would become of me, I had gotten pretty used to the house. I still didn’t know a thing about Butte, because I was never let out, except to take the air in the back yard, or walk around the block with Ma Ling, or sometimes go with her to visit some of her Chinese friends. It was still bitterly cold out, but sometimes it would be sunny and I would see children playing in the streets—they were often poor children, not very warmly dressed, but they didn’t seem to mind. They stared at me. I think there were not a lot of Negroes in Butte. As for the girls, I talked to them a lot, of course, and learned about their activities, about their gentlemen callers. But I was not quite wanting to join them in their activities and anyway I understood that I was in some kind of special limbo, thanks to Mr. St. Ives’s interest.

The girls were quite drawn into my situation. I now had two men very interested in me—they knew, naturally, about Eberhard’s visits. Of the two, there was no question that Eberhard was the more interesting. For one thing, he was not so old as Mr. St. Ives, being about thirty. Also, he was a man of my own race—I felt that I could talk with him—and he was very handsome, very attractive indeed. He was the most handsome man I had ever seen.

They were also thrilled about Mr. St. Ives. To them, he was the most interesting, I guess, because he was well-known, and powerful. I was also attracted to Mr. St. Ives. He was elegant, well-dressed, very well spoken. He was from my own part of the world and he knew my family. He spoke about them, often. I was grateful that he was helping me to write letters to my Mama—not that I couldn’t have written them, I had done well in school, but he knew just what to tell her. He would describe some of my duties at the house. “Don’t worry, it’s what you will be doing, maybe soon,” he explained. As strange as it seems, I had gotten used to all this. Even a child soon adapts to strange situations.

I am pretty certain that it was just after the first time that Mr. St. Ives finally made love to me that Eberhard came to me with information he’d gotten from Texas. It may have been a day or two later, but it was pretty close. The fact was, after that first time, the conversations about Texas pretty much stopped and Mr. St. Ives would want to go to bed with me as soon as he arrived. Perhaps later we would lie in bed and he’d talk a bit. But now, Eberhard said he’d learned that I wasn’t sixteen, I was only fifteen. That made a big difference, he said. I was only a child, legally, and I shouldn’t be in the custody of Ma Ling.

I insisted I was sixteen, but Eberhard didn’t believe me. He said he had good evidence, from the state of Texas, that I was only fifteen. If this was true, and he was sure it was, any man who touched me would be guilty of rape. I was horrified. I knew I had been doing something that was probably wrong, but I couldn’t believe it was rape. I didn’t want to be raped. I didn’t want to be one of those kinds of girls.

And then, Eberhard knew that I had been with Mr. St. Ives.  He was furious. He said he would have to talk to the judge. I pleaded with him. I was scared more than I had been. Ma Ling would throw me out on the street, I told him. He thought that was probably so. Ma Ling would be scared that she, too, would be brought into the rape case, for providing the accommodation for debauchery, as he put it. The house might be closed down. All the girls would be out on the street. I was thunderstruck. Oh, please, please, please, I begged him, don’t do it.

I could see that Eberhard was moved. He said he would have to think about it. Maybe he could talk to Mr. St. Ives. That scared me even more. I knew Mr. St. Ives would be furious. I had seen his face get dark, sometimes, if he talked about things that upset him. That was when he talked about the miners and about “Reds.” He was not a man I wanted to anger.

Something happened then. First, the following night neither Mr. St. Ives nor Eberhard came to visit. All of a sudden the house was silent. Ma Ling came and looked at me, but she didn’t say anything, just shook her head and went away. None of the girls came out of their rooms. When I went to visit their doors were closed and no one answered when I knocked or called. A girl who worked for Ma Ling, a scullery maid they called her, brought me some food. Her eyes were very big. All she would tell me was that there was big trouble. Then she ran away.

The next night, Mr. St. Ives came and got me. It was still very cold, very snowy. He had a couple of men with him. He seemed very business-like. He told me I must move from this house. It wasn’t a proper place for me, he said. He told the two men to pack up my things. Then he put on my coat and took me away to a little house down the hill from the city.

Now Mr. St. Ives came every night. I lived by myself in the little house, which was nice. He would bring me nice things. Furniture, groceries, clothes. Things got a little rough, at times. He sometimes got angry with me. He would get drunk. He told me that Mason had died. I was upset, then he got angry with me. He said, “That son of a bitch told people he was going to marry you!” He demanded to know if we had married. When I said no, he said I’d lied to him, had plotted behind his back. He was drunk and he slapped me in the face. I was shocked, then furious. I told him to leave. But then he raped me.

Later, I learned that his wife had died. Then he quit coming to see me. At first, he just stayed away a few days. Then he’d come and apologize and everything would be nice. But he’d get drunk and he’d drag me to the bed.

Along about this time I began to realize that something was wrong. I wasn’t having my monthlies any more. I went to Ma Ling and she told me that she could help me get rid of my problem, but I was scared. I didn’t want to do it. And when Mr. St. Ives started coming back it wasn’t long before he found out. That was big trouble then. He was sure the baby wasn’t his, but I told him it had to be his. I don’t think he believed me. He just quit coming by.

Ma Ling was so kind. She got the mid-wife to come to me when it was my time. And after the baby was born she would come and show me how to take care of it… my little Deborah, a beautiful, beautiful child. But she warned me. Mr. St. Ives would never, never accept my child. He would throw me out on the street, she said. And sure enough, by and by some men came and said I had to leave the house.

What could I do? Mr. St. Ives never came around. I didn’t know how to get in touch with him, even. But the men came and told me to pack up my clothes and they took me up to Ma Ling’s. Ma Ling was kind, but she said now I’d have to go to work. I was old enough, she said. But she could not take in the baby. It was no place for a child. The other girls were on my side and pleaded with her. They all loved little Deborah. But Ma Ling said she didn’t dare keep the child. Mr. St. Ives would be angry and there was no telling what he would do. And I thought to myself, it was like King Herod and the innocent children of Bethlehem, like I’d read in the Bible.

The hardest thing I ever did was write to my Mama in Texas and tell her the whole truth. Mama and old Mrs. St. Ives came up a week later. There was a terrible to-do, my Mama told me, when Mrs. St. Ives and Mr. St. Ives got in an argument. In the end, though, Mama and Mrs. St. Ives took Deborah back to Texas with them. That was the last time I ever saw my Mama. But she took good care of Deborah and Mrs. St. Ives paid for her to go to school, for which I am grateful and give thanks to the Lord.

This is all that Miss Hartsfield told me on this occasion. —B.S.

Later: some problems here. Originally, I’d heard that Sissa and Mason were only betrothed. Then I heard that they had been married by a Baptist preacher in Centerville. —B.S.

June 12, 1933.
Sissa says she did marry Mason. She says the baby was his, but she foolishly thought that it would be better if St. Ives thought Deborah was his, that he wouldn’t harm the child and might even provide for her. Her biggest mistake, she says.
I wonder if she even knows who the father was. B.S.

July 1, 1934.
I showed ms. to Sissa. Possibly mistake. She admits she left some things out. I think especially about the incidents around the marriage. I found a marriage license recorded in Whitehall! But didn’t say anything to Sissa. Q? When could baby have been conceived? Insists the baby, Deborah, was Mason’s child. Says she was pregnant when St. Ives moved her to the house on Walleye St. B.S.

Nov. 36—She has seen Deborah! Beautiful girl, in college, it seems. St. Ives was away, on trip to Chile. Sissa went to Chicago, met D. I agree to act as her postman.—B.S.


JON A. JACKSON is the author of the Detective Sergeant Mulheisen Mysteries. He tells us about himself and his novel-in-progress, Not So Dead: “I was born in Detroit before WW2, then spent my early years on a farm upstate in Michigan, before the family returned to the big city. I served in the Air Force mainly in the Detroit area and went to college there. Eventually, I moved to Montana and I’m still here, more than forty years later. But Detroit is still present in my mind… in fact, that Detroit only exists in my mind, now. But I have a great love for Montana and this novel, as well as its precursor, Go By Go [Dennis McMillan Publications, 1998], are set in the unique western city of Butte, a kind of alpine Detroit, previously exploited by Hammett in Red Harvest. I’m hoping to publish this Butte novel before too much longer.”

from issue #1: ‘Meeting James Crumley’ by Noel King

Noel King’s final 2005 interview with the late crime writer James Crumley will appear here tomorrow, but first King remembers the man.



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 PeaceThe 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

* * * * *


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.