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VALLEY WEEKEND | WORDS & IMAGES / PATRICA WARD BIEDERMAN

After Typical Wait, Crumley Arrives With Latest Novel

The rough-hewn crime writer discusses his work during a local stop to promote 'Bordersnakes.'

November 21, 1996|PATRICA WARD BIEDERMAN

There was a time when every suspense writer with a new book stopped in the San Fernando Valley, if only to do a signing at Scene of the Crime, the mystery bookstore in Sherman Oaks.

But Scene of the Crime is long gone, and the nearest specialty shops for Valleyites who experience withdrawal if they go too long without a Rendell or a Westlake are in West Los Angeles (Mysterious Bookshop), South Pasadena (Book 'em) and Thousand Oaks (Mysteries to Die For).

The big difference between these shops and general bookstores is typically the staff, people who tend to be both opinionated and extremely knowledgeable about the writers they stock. The best of them, like Mysterious manager Shelley MacArthur, have a real gift for teasing out what a reader likes and suggesting other titles that will satisfy his or her often very specific need.

All this came to mind when James Crumley was in the Southland recently, promoting his new book, "Bordersnakes." Unlike those writers who produce a book a year as predictably as fire season in Malibu, Crumley makes his readers wait. At 57, he has six books to his credit, including a highly praised non-mystery novel, "One to Count Cadence." His suspense titles include "The Last Good Kiss," a book that makes other writers jealous.

Crumley is on his second book tour for the Mysterious Press, and he stopped in at Mysteries to Die For in the course of it. Crumley says that the specialty stores are certainly important in selling his books, but perhaps not as important as they are in promoting more mainstream mysteries. In his books, he says, "the drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll drive some people away. This is not the alphabet girl."

Indeed not. Crumley's new book teams two of his earlier protagonists, Milo Milodragovitch and C. W. Sughrue. Hardboiled doesn't do them justice. Let's just say the book is so redolent of testosterone it's a wonder it hasn't grown hair.

A child of hardscrabble rural Texas, tested and shaped by the war in Vietnam, Crumley has the etched face of a man who has not spent the last four decades grading papers. When teased that he makes fellow writer James Lee Burke, a notorious former drinker, look like an ingenue, Crumley laughs, "I stayed there a little longer and a little harder than Jimmie Lee." Growing up outside of Mathis, Texas, Crumley "knew what it was to wear feed-sack shirts and what it was to occasionally miss a meal." In that part of Texas, he says, unemployment rarely drops below 20%.

As it was for so many who were not fortunate sons, Vietnam was the formative experience of Crumley's young life. In fact, he clarifies, "it wasn't so much my life, as it was the country's life." That Vietnam looms so large for his generation is no surprise. "That war lasted 10 years, twice as long as World War II," he points out. Two million or 3 million civilian casualties and untold military ones were bound to generate considerable "bad karma." As to how our government managed the war, he notes that we refused to learn anything from the cautionary example of the French. "We made every damn mistake we could possibly make."

War offered both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. "It's so much fun to be alive when everybody else is dead--and so guilty," he recalls. As a writer, though, he thinks he's finally put the war behind him, with his "The Mexican Tree Duck," winner of the 1994 Dashiell Hammett Award for Best Literary Crime Novel. "I hope I've written everything I need to write about Vietnam."

Crumley says he writes as quickly as he can. If you don't count 10 years he spent in Hollywood "paying for an onerous divorce" by writing unproduced screenplays, he has brought out a book about every three years, he says. And he explains, "It takes me a long time to get the beginning right so I can get on to the next thing." The classic opening of "The Last Good Kiss," for instance, took a year and a half. He also throws away a good deal that doesn't satisfy him.

Although he hasn't had to teach full time since 1974, Crumley has spent considerable time on college campuses. He taught at the University of Texas at El Paso and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He also taught at highly regarded Reed College in Oregon. He found Reed less than utopian. "I felt they worked the kids a little harder than they had to," he says.

Now married for the fifth time, to poet Martha Elizabeth, he lives in Missoula, Mont.

Crumley makes no apologies for the genre in which he has become a cult figure. He takes his detective novels seriously. If he didn't, "they would stop being serious." And it is a form that has its pleasures. "The detective novel is kind of sneaky," he says. "You can do something over here and also tell people something you want them to hear, like, 'Republicans suck butter.' "

His is a "gentlemanly" business, he says, no less so because some of the boon companions are women writers such as Julie Smith. Envy is rare among mysteries writers, he says. "It's OK with me to be part of a community, with Dutch Leonard and . . . Ross Thomas, who is unfortunately gone, the son of a bitch."

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