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OBITUARIES : James Crumley, 1939 - 2008

Author of gritty but poetic crime novels

September 20, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

James Crumley, a revered and influential crime novelist whose hard-boiled detective tales set in Montana and other Western locales were praised for both their grittiness and the lyrical quality of their prose, has died. He was 68.

Crumley died of complications from kidney and pulmonary diseases Wednesday at a hospital in Missoula, Mont., said his wife, writer and artist Martha Elizabeth.

A self-described "bastard child of Raymond Chandler," Crumley wrote seven crime novels featuring two detectives who were set not in the mean streets of L.A. but in what he called "my twisted highways in the mountain West."

Crumley's private eyes, C.W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch, were, as Dallas Morning News writer Jerome Weeks wrote in 2001, "sullen, violent men whose drug use and carnal antics would stagger a rhino."

To tell his two detectives apart, Crumley suggested remembering that "Milo's first impulse is to help you; Sughrue's is to shoot you in the foot."

The opening line to his 1978 Sughrue novel "The Last Good Kiss," which many consider his masterpiece, is considered classic -- and fans would often recite it to him at book signings:

"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 of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

Otto Penzler, owner of Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and founder of Mysterious Press, has called "The Last Good Kiss" the greatest private-eye novel he ever read.

"It's true," Penzler told The Times on Friday. "It had a poetical quality that I don't think anybody else ever achieved. I revered Raymond Chandler, but there was something about the beauty, the elegance of the prose that I think is the most important thing about Crumley."

And, Penzler said, "although his series character [Sughrue] was a drug-abusing alcoholic, he still had a romantic vision about doing the right thing."

That's true about all of Crumley's work, said Penzler, who published the second novel featuring Sughrue, "The Mexican Tree Duck," which won the 1994 Dashiell Hammett Award for Best Literary Crime Novel.

Although he never had a bestseller, Crumley developed a large cult following and received tremendous critical acclaim. "He just never found a vast mass audience," Penzler said, "and I wish I could tell you why. I don't know."

He said those who didn't know the big and bearish author might not understand, "but this is a man who had a gigantic heart and loved the world and loved life. He had a curmudgeonly sort of manner about him, but if you looked into his eyes you could quickly see that his eyes could look into your soul because he understood everything."

The son of an oil-field supervisor, Crumley was born Oct. 12, 1939, in Three Rivers, Texas.

He attended Georgia Institute of Technology for a year before serving in the Army from 1958 to 1961. He later earned a bachelor's degree in history at what is now Texas A&M University in Kingsville, and earned a master's degree in fine arts in creative writing at the University of Iowa in 1966.

While in the writing program, he wrote a good portion of what became his first book: "One to Count Cadence," a Vietnam War novel published by Random House in 1969.

David Dempsey wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the novel "snaps at the margins of war during the early days of our involvement in Vietnam, [and] is a compelling study of the gratuitous violence in men. . . . It is a story of bars, brawls, and brothels -- and I don't know of any writer who has done it better."

Crumley, who first moved to Missoula in 1966 to teach English at the University of Montana, later taught writing at colleges and universities around the country.

He also spent 10 years in and out Hollywood writing unproduced screenplays and working as a script doctor, and he co-wrote, with Rob Sullivan, the screenplay for "The Far Side of Jericho," which debuted at the Santa Fe Film Festival in 2006.

Crumley's second published book was "The Wrong Case," a 1975 crime novel that introduced his detective Milo Milodragovitch. Both of Crumley's detectives turned up in his 1996 novel "Bordersnakes."

His last novel, "The Right Madness," featuring Sughrue, was published in 2005 and was a finalist for the 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller.

"He was an exquisite prose stylist," Molly Stern, Crumley's editor at Viking, which published "The Right Madness," said Friday. "I always say he was a poet of violence."

Calling him a "true original," Stern said Crumley "was incredibly brazen with language. From the development of a scene where something really shocking happened to a comic moment, his language to describe those things was always just so wickedly brazen. He took incredible risks that paid off. I think a lot of crime writers really liked him because there was nothing really faux gritty about him. He was the real deal."

In addition to Martha, his fifth wife of 16 years, Crumley is survived by three children from his second marriage, David, Elizabeth and Mary; two children from his fourth marriage, Chris and Conor; his brother, John; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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