John Schulian wanted to know if I had heard the news. I hadn't. His e-mail message filled me in: "James Crumley, the best crime writer of our generation, died, at 68, in a bed surrounded by his friends and family in Missoula. I never pictured him checking out so benignly, and I doubt that he did, either."
Schulian is a crime writer himself -- read his story One Gift -- Hold The Wrap, published online by thuglit -- and not someone easily impressed. He's a veteran sportswriter, one of the best, who many years ago fled the clutches of Rupert Murdoch for a career in Hollywood, where he became a successful television writer and executive producer.
I knew Schulian at the Chicago Sun-Times back in the '80s and later commissioned him to write a column about pop culture when I was an editor at msnbc.com, the news website. It was one of the smartest editorial decisions I made there. His column, which appeared once a week for a year, riffed on everything from country music (a favorite of his) to books (another fave) to celebrities (only when I asked), and made the site's arts coverage worth reading.
Here is one of those columns -- an appreciation, disguised as a review, that ran when Crumley was still very much alive. It was posted on Dec. 3, 2001.
By John SchulianThe train to glory left without James Crumley, who seems to have been too busy examining life's gnarly side to bother catching it. There are no best-sellers for him, no money-bloated deals with Hollywood -- just hard-boiled novels that are better than anybody else's because all those lost nights stashed in the margins make each one a survivor's story.
Crumley has never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but he knows how blood looks when it's spilled against a backdrop of whiskey dawns, cocaine pick-me-ups, and wall-shaking sex. His is a wisdom acquired by bellying up to the bar in roadhouses where bikers, ranch hands and oil-field workers beat each other senseless for playing the wrong Merle Haggard song on the jukebox. It's no life for the delicate, but the delicate don't have a taste for Crumley's novels anyway, so the hell with them.
The time is right for saying so now that Crumley has again unleashed Milo Milodragovitch, one of his two memorably unapologetic rogue heroes. Milo comes barreling back in The Final Country because he needs something to keep Texas and a woman who's the queen of mood swings from driving him crazy. To tell the truth, he'd rather be home in Montana after reclaiming his father's stolen inheritance and snagging some unlaundered drug money in the process. Failing that, he uses a sap on a sucker-punching lady bartender, knocks the teeth out of a one-armed man's mouth, and almost twists the nose off a security-company executive's face -- all before the shooting gets serious. Crumley, for what it's worth, says Milo represents his kinder, gentler side.They've both passed 60 without a whimper, no problem for Crumley, but strange territory for a hero in a genre that avoids aging as if it were a homely blond. Be advised, though, that when readers first met Milo, in The Wrong Case, in 1976, he was in strange territory for a PI then, too -- the modern West -- and he survived nicely. So when he talks about the two white streaks in his hair early on in The Final Country, he isn't worried. It's like he says: "I'm old, babe, but not dead."
The set-up is straight out of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, which Crumley admits and which, when you think about it, is only fitting since he has been described as Chandler's "bastard son." Anyone who doubts the accuracy of that label should read Crumley's 1978 masterpiece, The Last Good Kiss. With all due respect to Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke and the genre's other heavyweights, it's the best hard-boiled novel of the past 25 years. Some admirers swear it is even more than that, comparing it to Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To make their case for Crumley's artistry, true believers don't have to go any farther than The Last Good Kiss's first sentence:
Of course, he comes close to making a liar of himself when the simple job of tracking down a runaway wife puts him in the path of a drug dealer "no larger than a church or any more incongruous than a nun with a beard." The drug dealer, fresh out of prison, is looking for a woman, too, and when he doesn't succeed, he decides the next best thing is to kill a bar manager. In the midst of the mayhem, over drinks, naturally, he and Milo connect. So it is that Milo decides to help a guy who doesn't look like he needs any.
"I lost my watch," he said.
"Any idea where?" asked an unsuspecting straight man.
"Yeah," Crumley said. "I threw it out a car window in El Paso in 1978."