James Crumley’s Unfilmable Masterpiece (by Jameson Trahearne)

Jameson Trahearne is a pseudonymous new writer whose pen name, first and last, is taken from characters in the novels of James Crumley. In this post, one of Crumley’s great novels, The Last Good Kiss, is examined in detail. We must warn readers in the strongest way, however, that the post is not intended for those who have yet to read the book. Key elements of the plot are revealed! We can’t tell you much about Jameson Trahearne himself, other than that he is a Cincinnati native who is fascinated by his city; he is scrupulous in maintaining his pseudonym. His fiction debut, “Rising Sun,” appears in the Department of First Stories in our current issue (March/April 2022). —Janet Hutchings 

In 1978, James Crumley published his second private eye novel, The Last Good Kiss. Like his other works, it was a modest seller. Or, as some like to say, it had a cult following. But its standing in the pantheon of hardboiled private detective novels is manifest. Many of the greats, including Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Craig McDonald, and others, cite Kiss as both a huge influence on their own career, and revere it as one of the very best examples of the genre. Consider Pelacanos’s words on the subject: “If you asked us to name one book that got us jacked up to write crime novels, it would be The Last Good Kiss. It showed us a crime novel could be about something bigger than the mystery itself.” Unlike other influential entries in the genre, however, Kiss has never been adapted for television or film. Why? The answer is as simple and straightforward as could be, and if you haven’t read it, you’ll hate me for telling you why.

First, some context. Born in Three Rivers, Texas to an oil-rig worker, Crumley spent his early adulthood in R.O.T.C. programs and playing football for various colleges before a three-year stint in the U.S. Army. A few years later he bartended his way through the Iowa Writers Workshop, the result of which is his sole non-private detective novel, the often-overlooked war story One to Count Cadence. Set in 1962 in both the Philippines and Vietnam, Crumley’s protagonist steadily loses faith in America and its romantic myths, a theme the author would continue to mine for the rest of his career.

Then, as the story goes, the poet Richard Hugo gave Crumley some advice: read Raymond Chandler, if not for the private detective stories, then for the quality of his sentences. Partake of just one chapter of any Crumley novel and you can see he took that advice to heart. Throughout his works, Crumley’s sentences are as poetic and beautiful as any a reader will find in the genre. Consider the opening of The Last Good Kiss, what some regard as the finest first sentence of any private detective novel:

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.

In Kiss, via a series of events we find out later were carefully orchestrated by Trahearne—a famous novelist—Crumley’s protagonist C.W. Sugrue agrees to search for the long-disappeared daughter of the owner of the “ramshackle joint.” Sugrue is given only a few pieces of information to work with to find Betty Sue Flowers: the time and place of her disappearance, the names of her then boyfriend and drama teacher, and a copy of her high-school yearbook photo. The quest initially plays out like a road-trip buddy comedy, where Sugrue and Trahearne traipse around the American West, pulling on years-old threads of Betty Sue’s tragic tapestry as they booze and brawl from one faded memory to another.

At the same time Sugrue’s employer, Trahearne’s ex-wife, is expecting her ex-husband back at their homestead in Montana, where a troubled marriage to his current wife, Melinda, awaits him. Each clue to Betty Sue’s whereabouts not only reveals that the men she encountered became intensely infatuated with her, but now—many years later—the resulting obsession has fairly well ruined their lives. She has that effect on every man she meets—a group that now includes Sugrue.

I won’t give away the rest of the story (or at least, not too much of it), but if you haven’t read Kiss, please stop reading this blog now and go buy the novel, because (Unforgivable Spoiler Alert!), I am about to give away the climax of the second act, which also reveals why The Last Good Kiss is unfilmable.

I will pause for a few sentences to give you a chance to think about it. Otherwise, what awaits is that particularly terrible experience where someone gives away the secret to films like The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game—both happened to me, by the way—where a reveal so monumental awaits that to hear it beforehand will truly spoil your experience of the story.

(No doubt I will burn in some kind of Jim Thompson-esque hell for writing this blog entry, but I do have one justification: Kiss has nigh on disappeared from the crime/mystery marketplace. I think it’s worth risking the secret to bring the novel to the attention of the readers of this blog.)

Last chance . . .

Eventually Sugrue catches up with Betty Sue only to discover he had been played all along. Betty Sue turns out to be Melinda, Trahearne’s second wife. Trahearne is so insanely jealous—so absolutely convinced Melinda has been cheating on him, that he not only has become impotent and unable to write any more, but he concocted this entire plot so he could ride along with a P.I. to discover everything about Melinda’s past. The reunion at the homestead doesn’t go well, and…well, I won’t spoil the rest of the novel. I’ve done enough damage as it is.

Through the lens of his post Vietnam war jaded romanticism, Crumley repeatedly explored what he called “human foolishness,” especially the foolishness of men. Nowhere does he do it as well as in the pages of this story. All the men are not only infatuated with Betty Sue, but the resulting impulse to control her invariably led to tragedy befalling her or the people she is close to. Betty Sue just wanted to live her life as she saw fit, but these men simply could not allow it.

Only Sugrue narrowly avoids this misogyny trap—Crumley’s way of intimating there might be some small hope for foolish men, including, one might infer, the men reading the novel.

At this point you might wonder: if Kiss is so great, why haven’t we seen it on screen? By now the answer should be obvious: Anyone reading the descriptions of Betty Sue wouldn’t make the connection to the descriptions of Melinda. The fact that they are one and the same person is a terrific reveal. The clues are there, to be sure, and I haven’t encountered anyone who feels cheated by this aspect of the story. It works. It really works.

Any contemporary television or film audience, however, wouldn’t be fooled so easily. Even if the director took great pains to make the actress playing Betty Sue appear remarkably different than Melinda, it’s easy to understand how the risk would be considered too great to take. If the viewing audience were to figure out beforehand that Betty Sue and Melinda are the same person, the film or television show would no doubt come off as either condescending or dumb. No one wants that.

So, where does that leave Kiss, now and in the future? As a writer who has taken his pen name (first and last) from characters in Crumley’s novels, I experience no small amount of melancholy thinking this story will likely never see the screen. I am sad not so much that I won’t be able to see it, but that this seminal private eye story is unlikely to reach a much broader audience, and thus won’t bring what many believe to be some of the best crime fiction in existence to the hearts and minds of new generations.

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