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the last good kiss

19 april 2016

We think of noir fiction in the US as having peaked in the early 1940s, a little before the film genre that borrowed from that fiction and retroactively gave noir its name. In particular, Cornell Woolrich (The Bride Wore Black) and James M. Cain (Double Indemnity) are archetypal: unforgettably boiled-dry amalgams of crime and cynicism. But there was a second great peak of noir in the 1970s, especially in films like Charlie Varrick and Night Moves. Noirs were in color by the '70s, an awful-looking color process that looked washed-out and soulless even when the films were new. The scene shifted from mean streets to nondescript roads, dingy suburbs, and depressing, depopulating small towns.

Literature followed the '70s-noir trend too, or rose alongside it. One of the cult classics of the decade is James Crumley's Last Good Kiss (1978). I didn't read it when it was new; in fact I didn't read it till now, nearly a decade after its author's death. I don't know if I'd have liked it in 1978. It's a book that centers on middle-aged male angst, and though I am middle-aged, male, and anxious in 2016, I still don't like books that dwell on the topic. But (like the best of earlier noir) it refuses to sentimentalize its male narrator's idiocy. And (like '40s noir as well) it presents women who more than hold their own in the murderousness department.

In the end, one enjoys books like The Last Good Kiss for their language. Maybe you don't want to have narrator/private-eye C.W. Sughrue's drinking problem or his violent streak or his fixation on firearms, but you'd probably like to have his unerring ability to think of the wrong mordant thing to say for every situation.

Sughrue lives in small-town Montana, doubling as bartender and skip-tracer. The high-toned ex-wife of a celebrated novelist hires him to track down her ex-husband, who has gone on the road and on a bender after his newest young wife has stepped out. Sughrue finds Trahearne (the novelist) and an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in California, but also gets a new case when the bar-owner Rosie, who's been sheltering Trahearne and Roberts, hires him to find her own long-lost daughter.

There's quite a bit of doubling and undoubling in the early chapters of The Last Good Kiss. It's oddly reminiscent of Lolita, in fact: the hunt across an absurd West for a teasing man of letters who's always one step ahead, and who resembles the enchanted hunter too closely for comfort. And of course there's an abducted girl in the mix, or two, or two who turn out to be one.

Trahearne and Sughrue (and the dog) set out on the trail of the women/woman, which leads them to Denver and back to Montana a few times and leaves a trail of battered bodies, corpses or as-good-as, in their wake. They drink themselves to oblivion and dry out and start drinking all over again. Trahearne's colossal writer's block merges with Sughrue's more private failures. They spend their time stoned, and splashed with mud and blood, they smoke constantly and never wash, and yet they attract more women than they do flies. The whole scenario is incredible and offensive – yet when was the hard-boiled private-eye novel ever any different?

Ross Macdonald is another clear influence here, and of course to be influenced by Macdonald is to be influenced by Raymond Chandler and indeed reduces to writing in the hard-boiled genre at all, since their influence was inescapable. Hemingway and Mailer and the late Jim Harrison also serve as models, if not for Crumley's prose, then for his characters and perhaps to some extent for his life. I'm glad I read The Last Good Kiss; if I take a while to return to Crumley's other books, it's just because life is short and the unsung minor classics of even one genre are many.

Crumley, James. The Last Good Kiss. 1978. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard [Random House], 1988. PS 3553 .R78L3