Book review: in Praise of James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss

The Last Good Kiss“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 recently re-read James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. It was maybe my third or fourth time, I’m not sure.

Whatever the case, I came away from the book thinking two things.

Firstly, it probably has the greatest opening line of any book I’ve ever read.

Second, it may very well be the best piece of private investigator fiction written. It’s certainly the best one I can remember reading, and I’ve read a lot. The story is a terrific piece of distilled hard-boiled noir, and Crumley is such a fine writer. I was determined to mark the most memorable passages but gave up by page 30. There were just too many of them.

The Last Good Kiss starts off with CW Sughrue being paid to search for an alcoholic, larger than life, Norman Mailer-type writer called Abraham Traheane. He tracks Traheane for weeks down endless stretches of black top and numerous dead end bars, almost entering a dream like state, before finally finding him. His thoughts upon locating his quarry are worth repeating in full.

“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.”

One job leads to another when the owner of the bar with the bull dog asks Sughrue to find her daughter, who has been missing in San Francisco for ten years. She and her boyfriend where driving around the city one afternoon, they stopped at a red light and she just opened the door, stepped out and was never seen again.

Sughrue and Traheane end up looking for the girl together. There are rumours she may have been involved in porn films, got tangled up with the mob, ended up in a remote commune, no one knows. It’s a pointless case and Sughrue is not sure why he is doing it. But that’s not really the point.

PI crime fiction gets a bad wrap these days. A lot of people think it’s said everything it can say, that it’s boring and derivative. And, Christ knows, there is certainly a lot of boring PI crime novels out there.

But done well, the private investigator is a terrific vehicle to explore society and its underbelly. And in The Last Good Kiss, Crumley uses it to explore the battered bars and small towns of seventies post-Vietnam War American.

The Last Good Kiss still blows me away, the complexity of the story, the flawed and damaged nature of the characters, the way it wove counter cultural themes and crime fiction together. Even though it was first published in 1978, it still feels real and urgent.

Crumley never enjoyed a great deal of success with his writing while he was alive, and only wrote a handful of books compared to most authors these days.  I wish he’d written more.


7 Responses

  1. My summer reading list (James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Robert Penn Warren) is filled right now.

    This is first on my Fall reading list. You hooked me with this review. Also because I lived in SF, and roamed Sonoma and Napa for a bit. I like reading about places I recognize.

    ~ Mark

  2. I think you enjoyed this more than I did. I’ve read it twice and whilst it was good, I didn’t think it great. A beer drinking bulldog??……really?

  3. Fair enough, Col, each to their own. I stand by my review, however, and will insist this is probably the PI book every written.

  4. Andrew, we’ll agree to disagree then mate. I’m not going to put my head on the block and choose a favourite myself!

  5. Great review! One of my favourite books. I’ve never met a crime writer who doesn’t gasp in awe when it is mentioned.

  6. The characterizations and setting developments are outstanding. I’m working on a crime novel and this one sets the bar as far as writing goes. Any writer can take lessons here.

  7. Discovered Crumley while on a 10 yr vacation at Uncle Sam’s Gated Community. The Last Good Kiss was one of my favorite reads ever.

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