Bill Baber is Messy Business’ guest today, talking about James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Crumley has been compared to Hunter S. Thompson and Raymond Chandler, his hardboiled noir having a post-Vietnam edge of cynicism to distinguish it from predecessors.
Bill Baber is a fantastic writer you’ll find all across the internet on fiction sites such The Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Spelk Fiction and a horde of others.
Hi Bill, which book are we talking about?
The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
What’s it about?
C.W. Sughrue is a Vietnam vet who works as a bouncer at a Montana topless bar and doubles as a private investigator. Hired to track down an alcoholic author, the pair end up searching for a girl who disappeared in the Haight- Ashbury a decade earlier. The hunt takes them through the underbelly of the American West and into some of the darkest places people are capable of going.
A story about a private dick. There’s been so many, what stands out about The Last Good Kiss?
Well, there are always some cliches with P.I. novels and Sughrue is certainly a hard-drinking example of that. But the writing makes this book stand out.The opening line is as good as any ever written – in any genre. And Sughrue is as unique a character as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. He is sometimes more a saddle tramp than anything else, and Crumley’s stories become modern westerns in a sense.
And the thing about Sughrue is that – even though his aspirations can be somewhat noble – between drugs, weapons and his actions, he is a one man crime wave. But I keep going back to the writing. It was like nothing I had ever read before.I read it for the first time in the late 70’s. Poetic sentences are laced throughout. It was the first literary crime fiction I had ever read and it wasn’t until I discovered Lehane and James Lee Burke that anything else came close.
Is the book written in the first person? Do the poetic sentences come out of the character?
Yes and yes. It is written in first person. Sughrue narrates the story. Here is the iconic first line:
“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
This is my favorite passage from the book. Doesn’t get much more noir than this and it’s pretty damn poetic:
“Sadness softened her nasal twang, that ubiquitous accent that had drifted out of the Appalachian hills and hollows, across the southern plains, across the southwestern deserts, insinuating itself all the way to the golden hills of California. But somewhere along the way, Rosie had picked up a gentler accent too, a fragrant voice more suited to whisper throaty, romantic words like Wisteria, or humid phrases like honeysuckle vine, her voice for gentleman callers. “Just ﬁne,” she repeated. Even little displaced Okie girls grow up longing to be gone with some far better wind than that hot, cutting, dusty bite that’s blowing their daddy’s crops to hell and gone. I went to get her a beer, wishing it could be something ﬁner.”
That is poetic. Does the violence come out fast and brutal, like Ellroy, or does he describe it like above?
Unlike some of his other works, where the bodies can quickly pile up, there is not much actual violence in The Last Good Kiss. His descriptions of what leads to the violence is damn good prose as is the implied violence and how that effects the story.
Do you prefer the implied violence? Your short stories contain it, but they’re short, sharp and to the point.
Yeah, sometimes I do. I think it’s harder for a writer to write a crime story without lots of violence. But really good writers can do it. The threat is always there and you feel that constant tension.
What does Crumley have to say about the American West?
He laments the changes. He bemoans over-development, real estate speculators , timber interests, anything that has changed the face of the west. Sughrue and his other PI character, Milo Milodragovitch were born a hundred years too late. They both live by the code of the old west. Essentially, they are modern day saddle tramps who just want to be left alone. I think this passage sums it up well: “I parked beside Trahearne’s Caddy, got out to stretch the miles out of my legs, then walked out of the spring sunshine into the dusty shade of the joint, my boot heels rocking gently on the warped floorboards, my sigh relieved in the darkened air. This was the place, the place I would have come on my own wandering binge, come here and lodged like a marble in a crack, this place, a haven for California Okies and exiled Texans, a home for country folk lately dispossessed, their eyes so empty of hope that they reflect hot , windy plains, spare, almost Biblical sweeps of horizon broken only by the spines of an orphaned rocking chair, and beyond this, clouded with rage, the reflections of orange groves and ax handles. This could have just as easily been my place, a home where a man could drink in boredom and repent in violence and be forgiven for the price of a beer…”
Does Vietnam sit in the novel’s background? If so, in what ways?
First, here is one more great quote about the “modern” west: “…I put Rosie’s eighty-seven dollars in a dollar slot machine and hit a five-hundred dollar jackpot. Then I fled to the most depressing place in the West, the Salt Lake City bus terminal, where I drank Four Roses from a pint bottle wrapped in a paper bag. I couldn’t even get arrested, so I headed up to Pocatello to guzzle Coors like a pig at a trough with a gang of jack Mormons, thinking I could pick a fight, but I didn’t have the heart for it. Eventually, none the worse for wear, I drifted North toward Meriwether like a saddle tramp looking for a spring roundup.”
The Vietnam war is never far away. It’s not mentioned often in the book but even if it weren’t mentioned at all you would know the setting was the underbelly of America just after it ended. Sughrue is a vet who earned a dishonorable discharge and spent time in a military prison for an assault that went too far. As a result, he is recruited to spy on left wing groups for the government. Between the war and espionage, he hones his PI skills – becoming a warrior without a war.
If Sughrue hankers for the ways of the old west, how does he see his role as an agent for the new America, the one which intervenes across the world and allows big business to transform his ideals of old America?
Hard question, easy answer. Have you been to Montana? That’s his main stomping ground. Hang out in bars there and the rest of the world goes away. Anytime he deals with that kind of bullshit he heads home, says fuck it and goes on a bender. Strip all the macho layers away and he’s a simple man. Good whiskey, good smoke, a pan fried elk steak and the occasional dalliance with a damsel, who is usually in distress, is all he needs to be happy.
Never been to Montana. So who’s the girl and why is she missing? Murder or a need for anonymity?
Betty Sue Flowers. She has a falling out with her mother, who runs the beer joint where Sughrue finds Trahearne. Out of kindness – and for eighty-seven dollars – Sughrue agrees to look for her.
Is Trahearne the alcoholic author Sughrue is initially looking for?
Why does Trahearne get involved in the search?
Sughrue finds him not far from San Francisco and is supposed to take him back to his wife in Montana. But Betty Sue may be or may have been in the Haight-Ashbury, so the two, who have kind of hit it off, take a detour to look for her.
Your bio says you’re a writer of trashy crime stories. How do you categorize The Last Good Kiss?
Crumley’s books are definitely boiled harder than most but I call them literary crime fiction. I put Lehane and James Lee Burke in that same category. There is more going on than just crime.
As I said before, you call your own stuff as trashy crime stories, but you have turns of phrase that could be considered literary. Do you aim for the literary?
Thanks, I do but I have a long ways to go to get where I would like to be. Initially you asked how I would classify my work and I gave that a great deal of thought. I write as a hobby so I suppose that allows me to write in different styles and different settings. For instance, after visiting New Orleans once I have since set a few stories there. I’ve never been to New York but I have written stories set there. Never been anywhere else in the south but have written stories about it. I suppose if I were aiming for fame and fortune I would need to both hone and define my style better. My hope is to someday write a literary crime novel.
What do you like about a trashy crime story? Which movie would fit the bill?
I like the way a trashy crime story just jumps off the page. I hope he won’t take offense because to me, trashy is a great thing in crime fiction and Tom Leins’ Paigton Noir stories are a delight! As far as movies go, Pulp Fiction is the first thing I think of that fits that description.
Tom Leins is a cracking storyteller.
Bill, you’ve been great. Any final words?
Couple of things. It’s too bad Crumley only left us seven crime novels. And earlier I talked about the poetic nature of his writing. The title The Last Good Kiss was taken from a poem by Crumley’s good friend, Richard Hugo.
Thanks for having me, Jason, it’s been fun.
You can buy James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss at Amazons UK and US.
Here’s a taste of Bill Baber’s work. They’ll draw you in and make you push him hard for that novel he’s working on.