Living with Writer’s Envy



Writer’s Envy is a condition in which you stumble across a sentence or paragraph in another author’s work and scream in frustration for not having written it yourself. I am prone to regular fits of Writer’s Envy. The only cure, as far as I can tell, is to stop reading—but seeing as that’s not possible, I have decided to give voice to my suffering.

In recent months, the work of one particular author has sent me into several fits of jealousy. If you’re not familiar with the late James Crumley, please do yourself a favor and purchase several of his books right now. He wrote hardboiled detective novels set in the Pacific Northwest. One critic described him as the literary love child of Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson. That’s pretty much spot-on.

Crumley’s stories are imbued with Thompson’s drug-fueled, Gonzo madness and Chandler’s hard-edged style. Like Chandler, his plots don’t always make perfect sense, but that hardly matters. It’s Crumley’s characters and writing that’ll keep you coming back for more. In the passage below, from Crumley’s The Wrong Case, private eye Milo Milodragovitch—searching for a client’s missing brother—has just followed up a lead in a slum bar and is now standing in the rain-slicked parking lot after sunset:

A car full of drunks hissed over the Ripley Avenue bridge and down the ramp above us, fleeing through the night down black and wet streets, heading home or to another gaily lighted bar rife with music and dancing and sweaty women with bright eyes and lips like faded rose petals. As the driver down-shifted, the exhaust belched, the tires snickered across the slick pavement, a girl’s shrill laughter flew out, abandoned like a beer can in the skid. The colored lights from the discreet Riverfront sign reflected off the dark asphalt, wavering as the wind sifted the rain, glowing like the lights beneath a black sea.

Awesome, isn’t it? There’s nothing contrived here. There’s no sense Crumley is writing to impress. It’s just a beautiful piece of writing that evokes a great sense of atmosphere. Another passage I love is from Crumley’s last book, The Final Country, in which Milodragovitch is attempting to clear his name in a murder case. Here is how he describes one of the femme fatales he encounters:

Her fine features, framed by coal black hair, seemed chiseled from an ancient marble as pink and bloody as the froth from a sucking chest wound. As she walked out the door, her hips swayed like willows in the wind and her bare white shoulders gleamed like a hot flame in the smoky shadows.

Again, it’s just a wonderful piece of writing that captures the essence of a character without resorting to cliché. It brings to mind dingy bars and seductive glances. But of all the things Crumley wrote, his opening to his masterpiece The Last Good Kiss is considered by many to be the best first paragraph in crime fiction:

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 Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

Crumley sadly passed away in 2008, but he left behind a legacy of phenomenal writing and stellar stories.