Crumley’s Last Good Kiss

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The fact that, not before time, an enterprising publisher – Transworld – had opted to reissue James Crumley’s idiosyncratic and marvellous novel, The Last Good Kiss (and that Waterstones have had the nous to install it as their Thriller of the Month) sent me back to a piece I wrote for Peter Messent’s Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel * in 1997. Here are the opening paragraphs …

I know that the first Crumley novel I read was The Last Good Kiss, but can’t remember too clearest when this was, nor the exact circumstances which resulted in my possession of a RandomHouse, hardcover first edition. But here it is, a little soiled now and ragged, behind Stan Zagorowski’s slightly surreal jacket design – a section of Western town, all brash signs and Hopper colours before a backdrop of towering, featureless mountains and, hanging above Mary’s Bar, a pair of full-blooded red lips that seem to have floated off from a Max Ernst canvas in an outsize offer of sexual promise and threat.

I suspect the year was 1978 or 1979.Not long off a brief series of mawkish, London-based, sub-Chandler private eye novels (James Ellroy was right: follow old Ray down those mean streets and sumptuous sub-clauses at your peril!), and embarked upon a sequence of ten paperback Westerns featuring Hart the Regulator, reading The Last Good Kiss affected me in the same way as listening to Philly Joe Jones when I was trying to be a drummer. All the things I hd wanted to do, plus several I hadn’t thought of, and all with such apparent ease. if I hadn’t already signed the contract, my electric typewriter might well have followed the drum kit into the small ads columns of the local newspaper.

I instinctively knew this was the best private eye novel I’d read since Robert B.Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript, some five years before. I think I knew that Crumley’s book had elements over and above the freshness of Parker’s debut, and that these were something to do with the Western setting and something else I had yet to identify. Whatever the case, having read it once, I immediately set to read it again and have enjoyed reading it every few years since. And even if I still don’t understand the poem it works – or the final playing out of the plot – if there’s a more singular and compelling PI novel to have been written in the past, almost, twenty years, I don’t know what it is.

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  • “The Last Good Place: James Crumley, the West and the Detective Novel” in Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel, edited by Peter Messent, Pluto Press, London & Chicago, 1997
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