“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.”
–James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss
One of life’s great pleasures, in addition to single-malt scotch and a well-cooked steak, is reading a book and discovering a sentence or paragraph that hits you with its beauty. One of my favorites is from The Wrong Case by James Crumley, a brilliant but, sadly, underrated author of violent, hardboiled detective novels. His stories are set in the Pacific Northwest; his protagonists are hard-drinking, drug-taking burnouts who, at their core, hold tight to some faded sense of justice. A critic for the New York Times once wrote if Hunter S. Thompson and Raymond Chandler had a child, James Crumley would be the end result. That pretty much nails it. 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, 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. Unfortunately, Crumley passed away in 2008, but he left behind a legacy of some of the best crime fiction out there.