James Crumley, 68, whose poetic and violent tales of crime in the American West made him a patron saint of the post-Vietnam private eye novel, died of complications from kidney and pulmonary diseases Tuesday at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Mont., where he lived.
Crumley published 11 books, the best-known of which was "The Last Good Kiss" (1978), whose opening line has been widely called the best in crime fiction: "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 Sonora, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."
That line, he said, took him eight years to write. But it, and the book, proved influential to a generation of crime novelists, including George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly.
"If you asked us to name one book that got us jacked up to write crime novels, it would be 'The Last Good Kiss,'" Pelecanos said this week. "He tried to describe the country in the wake of Vietnam. It wasn't a detective novel. It wasn't a cop novel. He showed us a crime novel could be about something bigger than the mystery itself."
Crumley's books, starting with 1969's "One to Count Cadence," were compelling studies of the gratuitous violence in men, and he had "a faultless ear for filthy speech," reviewer David Dempsey said in The New York Times.
"You don't read Crumley for plot," Patrick Anderson wrote in a Washington Post review. "You read him for his outlaw attitude, his rough poetry and his scenes, paragraphs, sentences, moments. You read him for the lawyer with 'a smile as innocent as the first martini.'"
Crumley explored danger, heartache, the dark streets and twisted highways in his highly ballistic work, shot through with drugs and alcohol. He wrote in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett but added "an angry new edge, producing outlaw fiction with a rock and roll beat," Anderson wrote.
So influential was he that the detective "Crumley" in a Ray Bradbury trilogy of mystery novels was named for him. In turn, Crumley named many of his characters after friends and acquaintances in the old railroad and timber town-turned-university burg where he lived. His softball team, the Montana Review of Books, turned up in fiction, as did the slightly disguised name of a local lawyer as one of his recurring characters, Milo Milodragovich. His most famous book's title was borrowed from a line in the Richard Hugo poem "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg": "You might come here Sunday on a whim./ Say your life broke down./ The last good kiss/ you had was years ago."
A larger-than-life character who was a habitue of the Missoula dive bar Charlie B's, Crumley bore a resemblance to the actor Wilford Brimley and had an old-fashioned sense of manners. He once said he did his best writing while standing at a kitchen counter, as commotion surrounded him.
He "paid attention to what people were doing around him, what people said, how they talked, what their gestures were," said essayist, memoirist and editor William Kittredge, who lives in the same western Montana town. "He could tell you not only the names of their children, but their dogs, what street they lived on three years ago. ... He wrote beautiful sentences when he wanted to and he was a great human."
Crumley was born in Three Rivers, Texas, the son of an oil-rig worker, and attended the Georgia Institute of Technology before enlisting in the Army in 1958. He served in the Philippines, and after his discharge he went back to college, graduating from the old Texas Arts and Industries University in 1964. He bartended his way through the University of Iowa's famous writer's workshop, earning a master's degree in 1966.
He taught at a series of universities, starting with the University of Montana, then the University of Arkansas, Colorado State University, the University of Texas at El Paso, Reed College in Portland, Ore., and Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
He returned to Missoula to simply write, and there he stayed, with occasional trips to Hollywood in the 1980s to work on screenplays, which paid the child support and alimony to four of his five wives.