The Pequod Review:
James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss is an outstanding rural American noir. Detective C.W. Sughrue is a part-time private eye who is hired to find Abraham Trahearne, an alcoholic writer who has gone missing. Sughrue's investigation takes him on a road trip across some of the darkest and seediest places in the American West, a journey that leads him first to Trahearne and then to another missing person case involving a girl who disappeared from Haight-Ashbury ten years earlier.
The book has a good plot, but its real strengths lie in its characterization and prose. Crumley is just a magnificent writer — vivid, precise and funny — and the story is told in Sughrue's wise and weary voice. The book is rightly praised for its opening line:
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.
But Crumley maintains it throughout the novel:
Sadness softened her nasal twang, that ubiquitous accent that had drifted out of the Appalachian hills and hollows, across the southern plains, across the southwestern deserts, insinuating itself all the way to the golden hills of California. But somewhere along the way, Rosie had picked up a gentler accent too, a fragrant voice more suited to whisper throaty, romantic words like Wisteria, or humid phrases like honeysuckle vine, her voice for gentleman callers. “Just ﬁne,” she repeated. Even little displaced Okie girls grow up longing to be gone with some far better wind than that hot, cutting, dusty bite that’s blowing their daddy’s crops to hell and gone. I went to get her a beer, wishing it could be something ﬁner.
I parked beside Trahearne’s Caddy, got out to stretch the miles out of my legs, then walked out of the spring sunshine into the dusty shade of the joint, my boot heels rocking gently on the warped floorboards, my sigh relieved in the darkened air. This was the place, the place I would have come on my own wandering binge, come here and lodged like a marble in a crack, this place, a haven for California Okies and exiled Texans, a home for country folk lately dispossessed, their eyes so empty of hope that they reflect hot , windy plains, spare, almost Biblical sweeps of horizon broken only by the spines of an orphaned rocking chair, and beyond this, clouded with rage, the reflections of orange groves and ax handles. This could have just as easily been my place, a home where a man could drink in boredom and repent in violence and be forgiven for the price of a beer.
Nobody lives forever, nobody stays young long enough. My past seemed like so much excess baggage, my future a series of long goodbyes, my present an empty flask, the last good drink already bitter on my tongue.
The Last Good Kiss is an exceptional detective story, but it is also a romance, a Western, and an adventure novel. It strikes a number of tones so well, and it has some depth as it captures the disillusionment of the Vietnam era more generally. Highly recommended for fans of Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Harry Crews or Derek Raymond.