Saturday, September 20, 2008
James Crumley passed away, from complications of kidney and pulmonary diseases Tuesday at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Montana, where he lived.
Those are the facts, and they only hint at a life lived hard and rich. The evidence of that hard-lived life is on Mr. Crumley's face for all the world to see.
To call Crumley a crime novelist--a writer of detective fiction--hardly scratches the insight and profound depth he brought to the human condition-- its dark sides and its absurdities. His name and work is recalled in the context of the Holy Trinity--Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald, but his influence went much further, to contemporary crime writers like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and others.
I first encountered Mr. Crumley's work at the Mysterious Book Shop in LA. Shelley MacArthur. I started with "Dancing Bear," the first of the Milo Milodragovitch books. Dark as hell, but with the redemption of black, bleak, self-deprecating humor. The character studies overwhelmed the plot at times, which was just fine with me. I got hooked and read everything Crumley wrote.
Twenty years ago or so, I had attended a small party with my future ex-wife, in the hills above Pacific Palisades. She worked with a psychological counseling group who dealt with on-site crisis intervention. They were called into help the victims of the terrorist plane crash in Locherbie, Scotland. One of the attendees had doctorate degrees in both English and Psychology. He had studied under the influential Erik Erikson. One of the lessons this person came away from his studies with Erikson was that, if you want to learn about psychology, you read psychologists. If you want to read about the human condition, you read fiction. It was like being hit on the head with the Eureka stick. But, of course! And I find this no more pointed than in the writings of good crime fiction, from Dosteyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" right up to the current handful of masterful genre writers. Crumley is certainly in that category, near the head of the class-- and class fits him like a tarnished crown. I mourn his passing and can take solace only in that he will live on, in a body of work that will surely stand the test of time.
Indulge me. This is a brief passage from James Crumley's last book, appropriately entitled, "The Final Country."
... for the first time in my life, I had long stretches of solitude with which to consider my life, trying to connect everything from my father's lovesick suicide to my mother's aggressive lie that somehow forced me to endure three months of muddy Korean hell before a broken collarbone got me back to the States in time to hear about her drunken suicide drying out at a fat farm down in Arizona. I considered it all—and it only added up to anything when I was in the arms of this sad, redheaded woman.
But I couldn't make her happy. No matter how hard I studied. Hell, I knew better. A man can make a happy woman sad, but he can't finally make a sad woman happy. Then I studied her sadness until the burden of that became too much for either of us to carry.
Requiescat in Pace