James Crumley – The Last Good Kiss (1978)
For the past year, about 80% of my reading time has been dedicated to crime fiction. SF and horror have taken the back seat to the likes of Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald, Jo Nesbo, Izzo, Ian Rankin and more, but after reading this, I feel I can finally step away for a while and explore something else. I have just finished James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, the best crime book I’ve read so far.
Tough, hard-boiled, and brilliantly suspenseful, The Last Good Kiss is an unforgettable detective story starring C. W. Sughrue, a Montana investigator who kills time by working at a topless bar. Hired to track down a derelict author, he ends up on the trail of a girl missing in Haight-Ashbury for a decade. The tense hunt becomes obsessive as Sughrue takes a haunting journey through the underbelly of America’s sleaziest nightmares.
As soon as I opened the first page, I was met with this 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 Sonoma California, drinking the heart out of a fine spring afternoon.”
I was hooked and determined to write down every passage that made me groan with jealousy and awe but I had to give up on that idea quite early on. It’s just too quotable.
The book opens with C.W. Sughrue, A private investigator hired to find an eccentric writer called Abraham Trahearne by his ex-wife. After weeks of searching, Sughrue finally catches up with the writer after learning about his strange affinity for bar dogs, which leads him to Fireball and of course Trahearne.
“Whenever I found anybody, I always suspected that I deserved more than money in payment. This was the saddest moment of the chase, the silent wait for the apologetic parents or the angry spouse or the law. The process was fine, but the finished product was always ugly. In my business, you need a moral certitude that I no longer even claimed to possess and, every time, when I came to the end of the chase I wanted to walk away.”
After a misunderstanding, which leads to Trahearne taking a slug in the arse, the owner of the bar asks C.W to look for her daughter, who has been missing in San Francisco for ten years. She stepped out of her boyfriend’s car and was never seen again. Sughrue eventually accepts the case even though he feels it’s pointless and not worth the measly $85 he’s paid but it’s all the mother has and Trahearne is willing to fund the search for a few more days away from his mother and ex-wife. What follows is full of twists and turns, pint bottles of vodka and Femme Fatales that will hold you to the very last word.
Crumley nails every character to the point of tears. As Sughrue and Trahearne look for the runaway Betty-Sue Flowers, it becomes clear that they’re all running from something. Sughrue tries to outweigh his own feelings of inferiority by telling himself he’s happy with the mundane life of a PI, who has to support himself by working in bars when work is slow. Trahearne tries to run from his infidelities, alcoholism and his thought that the last line he wrote could be his last.
In a strange way, I came out of this book with optimism. It revels in celebration at the obstacles Sughrue must face. The complexity of the story, the flawed and damaged characters makes this seem timeless. I’ve only just finished the book so it will be interesting to see how I feel about it in the upcoming weeks and months but for now, this is the most absorbing and on-point piece of pulp crime fiction I have read. You owe it to yourself to try it.
“Stories are like snapshots, pictures snatched out of time, with clean hard edges. But life always begins and ends in a bloody muddle, womb to tomb, just one big mess, a can of worms left to rot in the sun.”
As this is unavailable as an ebook, you will have to go to a bookshop. You never know, you might like it.
James Arthur Crumley was the author of violent hardboiled crime novels and several volumes of short stories and essays, as well as published and unpublished screenplays.
The edition I read was part of the Vintage Crime series from Black Lizard.