By Ron MacLean
My two favorite crime novels – James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss and Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye – have a lot in common. Both have stood the test of time. Both are world-weary and just this side of cynical. More importantly, both transcend their genre to be lasting works of literature: books more about the relentlessly fallible human condition than about crime or crime-solving.
Both are also missing persons stories, as are so many great novels of all stripes. Each tells the tale of a private eye's hunt for a down-and-out man. In each case, that hunt is supposed to be simple – the returning to home of a wayward miscreant on an extended binge – and in each case that hunt exposes an increasingly complicated tale of corruption, degradation, and loss.
Both also have remarkably similar – and memorable – opening sentences.
Crumley's opening: “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.”
And Chandler's: "The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers."
Each implies a relationship with this central character. Each suggests a journey. And each book does involve a crime (OK, a series of crimes). But the crimes are not at the heart of either book.
In the Chandler book, the central question revolves not around who killed Terry Lennox's wife, but around the odd friendship that develops between Chandler's hero Marlowe and Lennox, and on the question of whether Marlowe is justified in believing Lennox capable of such a brutal crime. It's a human question. It makes Marlowe vulnerable, and exposes him in ways Chandler's other mysteries did not. In this sense, it's a better, deeper book.
Crumley's book begins with our hero, C.W. Sughrue, finding Abraham Trahearne in a seedy bar. In the midst of trying to extricate Trahearne, Sughrue gets hired to track down the bar owner's daughter, who's been missing for a decade. This search for the elusive Betty Sue Flowers becomes the tale of two men combing the American West – its seedy motels, ghostly gas stations, lonely truck stops – for identity, not just of Betty Sue, but of their own.
Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean