In 1994 James Crumley visited Britain to promote the reprint of his first novel, One Count to Cadence, and his latest crime novel, The Mexican Tree Duck. At the time the latter was only his sixth book in a quarter of a century, and his fourth crime novel in nineteen years. Despite haven written few books, within the genre of hard-boiled fiction Crumley is the crime writers’ crime writer. In John Williams’ excellent collection of interviews with crime novelists—Into the Badlands—all those Williams spoke to were full of praise for Crumley’s work.
During his visit I spoke to James Crumley about his background, his varied writing career, and also about Bordersnakes, the novel he was completing at the time, and which was published in 1996.
“I apologise for being drunk, and not being drunk enough.” These are the first words that American crime writer James Crumley utters to his audience. It is 7.30pm and he is addressing some thirty people who are sitting surrounded by books in the Waterstone’s on Charing Cross Road in London.
“I am in the middle of a new book and I don’t remember much about The Mexican Tree Duck,” Crumley says. Explaining why, he continues, “For the first time in my career I did a lot of readings and signings in the States. I spent three weeks flying and six weeks driving around America. The last event was in Miami which is a long ways from Missoula, Montana, where I live. I had a drunken fit in the parking lot and I told my wife I was never going to read this Goddamned book again.” He pauses briefly and looks into the crowd. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.” The comment is received with nervous laughter until a grin appears on the author’s face. “After I read for a while I’ll stop and you guys can ask me to tell you the story of my life.”
Having only just outlined the evening’s programme, Crumley immediately strays from his schedule. Following a slug of beer, he starts to tell of some medical difficulties he experienced. “My vasectomy went bad and my scrotum became as big and black as a cannonball. I was quite nervous about it. The surgeon said, ‘God, I’ve done ten thousand of these things and yours goes wrong. Damn! If you write about this, I’ll sue you.’. I replied, ‘Roger, this is no time to be talking about law suits!’. Anyway, as far as I knew everything went alright but I found out after the operation that the hard part was getting me to lie down and shut up. Because of the drugs, I was so happy I kept telling them the story of my life. Later the anaesthesiologist said, ‘I now know more about you than your mother does.’ Which,” Crumley concludes, “is probably a good thing.”
Having finished this little detour, the author launches into a brief reading, and then, interspersed by more bizarre and entertaining anecdotes, answers the questions the audience throws at him. The atmosphere is cheery and informal, and Crumley seems almost disappointed when, an hour and a half later, his publicist says it is time to sign books and call it a night.
At ten to two the following day I turn in to the street of the hotel where James Crumley is staying. I was scheduled interview him at two o’clock. To my surprise I see the fifty-five-year-old author walking towards me. I introduce myself, and it turns out that Crumley didn’t realise what time it was. He was on his way to the Dog & Parrot, the nearest pub, and asks if I would mind having a drink first. Handing me my lager, he orders a large double whiskey and a pint of bitter for himself. Moments later we are joined by Martha Elizabeth, after four divorces, Crumley’s fifth wife. She looks considerably younger than her husband, and in conversation I find out that she is an artist. They have been married four years and still seem very much in love. Walking back to the hotel, they hold hands and as we get there, Mary Elizabeth says goodbye and goes off to the Victoria & Albert Museum. We settle down in the lounge for the interview.
First published in 1969, One to Count Cadence was recently reprinted in the US, and the appearance of the first UK edition by Picador coincides with the launch of Crumley’s latest crime instalment The Mexican Tree Duck.
“One to Count Cadence was out of print in the States for seventeen years before it reappeared in the Vintage Contemporary series. It was a little bit like having a runaway child come home,” the author says with a touch of pride. “It was awfully nice.” He continues, “In some kind of way One to Count Cadence and The Mexican Tree Duck are bookends: they are at either end of my feelings about the Vietnam war.”
Crumley explains that he sees One to Count Cadence as a novel about believers and non-believers. The two central characters, Jake Krummel and Joe Morning, are soldiers in the American army, who clash verbally over what reasons are legitimate to wage a war. Even though the majority of the book is set on the Philippines, the military intervention by the US army in Vietnam is of great influence on the novel’s outcome. James Crumley himself had enlisted in the army for a short while, but circumstances led him to leaving before becoming involved in any hostile action. “Coming from a non-literate, uneducated, working-class background—my father worked in the oilfields and my mother was a waitress—I had no idea what was going to become of me,” he says. “I went to college for a year, but quit and joined the army when I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I played football and worked in communications intelligence. Although I didn’t fit in well with the military bureaucracy—I’ve never fit in well with bureaucracy of any kind—I did have a pretty good time.” Crumley had wanted to join the Marine Corps, but at the time they were not recruiting from other services, so he decided to return to civilian life instead. “If it hadn’t been for that,” the author reflects, “I would have gone into the Marine Corp in ’63. Because I still had my security clearance—I worked on Vietnamese communications to intercept stuff—I would have been sent to Vietnam, two-thousand miles away from where I had been stationed in the Philippines.”
After leaving the army James Crumley went back to college. Initially he had intended to become a professional football-player but it soon became apparent that he had lost interest. Another ambition was to become a writer. “I’ve always loved books,” Crumley says. “I started my first novel when I was twelve but nothing ever came of it because, where I grew up in South Texas, writers were all faggots, sissies, and nancy boys.”
One day the aspiring writer discovered that a teacher at his college, William Harrison, was an author. “I heard that he had had a story published in The Saturday Evening Post and that he had sold his first novel,” Crumley recalls. “So, I just marched into his office with all this slobbery, self-indulgent poetry I had written. He looked at it, treated it seriously, and suggested that perhaps I should read some modern poetry. That’s all it took. I went home for the Christmas holidays and I filled myself with Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost… Then I wrote some more poetry which was no better than the previous stuff.” He showed his new efforts to William Harrison who responded by saying: ‘Maybe you should try writing fiction instead’. Grinning at the memory of his mentor’s tact Crumley says, “So that’s what I did.”
It was one of these early attempts that, after many revisions, became One to Count Cadence. “When I wrote that I was still just a kid. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was one of those great accidents.” He laughs when he says that it took more than a year before he realised that, perhaps, Joe Morning was not the right narrator for the story after all. Once it was completed, Harrison asked his literary agent at the William Morris Agency to represent James Crumley, and thirty days after she had received his manuscript, One to Count Cadence was sold to Random House. The author was astonished, “I was like, ‘Wait a minute…’ It was an incredible surprise.”
After graduating Crumley went on to teach at a university. “The best thing I did was to get the little bastards to read the books… That was the hard part,” he says, laughing once more. “One of my favourite courses was teaching contemporary literature to non-majors. I would do a novel a week, starting off with something fairly easy. Horseman, Passby—which was filmed as Hud [UK / US], or The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry for instance; novels with a straight narrative and told in an excellent kind of way. By the end of the course I would have them reading Under the Volcano, novels they would really have to work at. What I tried to do was to give them my sense of passion and make them read the novels. They are almost religious in their significance to me, the telling of stories.”
After a few years James Crumley felt a growing need to try and write another novel. This need, and the increasing bureaucracy at the university, led him to quit his job and start work on The Muddy Fork, a novel which he has never been able to complete. He first started writing this epic Texan novel in 1969, and it is something he keeps returning to time and time again. When he first started, it dealt with adulthood and politics in the Southern Texas. Now, middle-aged and having lost faith in politicians, the author is not so sure anymore. So far, he has burnt the manuscript twice, once after he had written eight-hundred pages. A draft chapter appeared in The Muddy Fork and other Stories in 1991. “It hasn’t changed much since then. It still begins on the day that Nixon resigned in 1974. I’ve just never been able get a handle on it in a way that I liked. Maybe it is my inability to work outside the first-person voice, and The Muddy Fork is not designed to be a first-person novel.”
Numerous attempts later James Crumley decided to give The Muddy Fork a rest and to try his hand at a detective novel instead. “I can frankly say that, if it had not been for Raymond Chandler, it would never have occurred to me to write a detective novel. When I read Chandler, I was in the middle of my first novel and I thought: I’m going to write one of these someday, it seems like a lot of fun.” Appropriately, when describing his writing style, Crumley has often referred to himself as “the bastard child of Raymond Chandler”.
True to his word the author wrote The Wrong Case a novel that introduced his first series sleuth: Milton Chester Milodragovitch—better known as Milo. In The Wrong Case, published in 1971, Milo is an alcoholic private investigator who specialises in divorce cases. Wasting his days until he inherits his parents’ fortune on his fifty-second birthday, Milo’s future at the start of the book is bleak: a new law has made divorcing a lot easier, thereby making his services redundant. Fortunately, he is hired to locate a missing person and mayhem ensues.
Sonny Sughrue—”sug as in sugar, and rue as is rue the Goddamned day”—created for Crumley’s second crime novel, The Last Good Kiss, was to become his other reoccurring private eye. Escaping his haunting Vietnam war experiences, Sonny, like Milo, has retreated from the metropolitan mean streets to the small Montana town of Meriwether. Again missing people need to be found, and Sonny finds one of them on the first page: Abraham Trahearne is sitting in a bar next to a bulldog, and both are roaring drunk.
All of Crumley’s books feature colourful and eccentric characters, but Abraham Trahearne is particularly interesting. “I didn’t realise that I based him on myself.,” Crumley says. “I thought Trahearne was based on poets and novelists I had known over the years. Then, later, I realised that an important part of the Trahearne character was his selfishness and his inability to forgive which, ultimately, is the inability to love. If you can’t forgive then you can’t love,” the author insists, before continuing. “So what I was really writing about was myself, because that kind of selfishness was certainly something that I was prone to when I was younger. It is something I learned, and I think it is important to give that kind of thing up.”
Sonny Sughrue was supposed to have returned in The Dancing Bear, but James Crumley felt that Sonny’s voice wasn’t right for the story, bringing back Milo to tell the tale instead. “I know the voices are similar,” the author says, “but I can tell the difference between them: Milo is the kind of guy who, when trouble starts, wants to take care of things; Sughrue will shoot you in the foot and stomp on the other as he’s going out the door.” Remembering his time writing filmscripts, Crumley smiles and adds, “Milo is the kind of voice I use when I want my life to be calm. Sughrue’s is the voice that I use when I am in Hollywood.”
When it became apparent to James Crumley that his book sales weren’t sufficient to keep him alive and pay alimony to four wives, he turned to Hollywood for work. Typically, of Tinseltown, only his uncredited rewrites of scripts by other people made it to the silver screen. Not that he didn’t pitch suitable material for films himself. Arnold Schwarzenegger was interested in Crumley’s take on Judge Dredd, but after committing himself to other projects the actor lost interest. The suggestion of making a film about the role of the Cu Chi tunnels in the Vietnam war wetted the appetite of Kevin Costner but only long enough for Costner to decide that his role wasn’t big enough. Crumley also worked on a script based on James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, but he has no idea what stage that project has reached.
As for Hollywood interest in the author’s novels, except for The Mexican Tree Duck, all of his books have been optioned. Sadly, as with his scripts, they remain unproduced. Crumley still has high hopes for a film version of The Dancing Bear though. “Robert Towne, the producer of Chinatown, [UK / US]and I have worked on the screenplay, and he has never worked on a project that did not come to fruition.”
Due to the length of time it is taking for his novels to be adapted, Crumley’s preferences for the lead roles are no longer viable. “Warren Oates would have been perfect for Milo, but he is dead so everyone else is second best. Mr. Towne suggested Tommy Lee Jones. Director Walter Hill revived interest at Warner Brothers for The Last Good Kiss, and Nick Nolte wanted to play Sughrue some years ago, but he is a little too old for that part now.”
During his Hollywood years a collection of journalistic articles and short stories called Whores was published. It was reissued in 1991 as The Muddy Fork & Other Things, having had sample chapters added from the Texan novel and The Mexican Tree Duck, as well as an interview with Crumley. When asked why he doesn’t do more journalism he says, “Mostly because it’s so hard. A buddy of mine once told me, ‘If you don’t have the piece when you get on the plane to go home, you’re in the wrong business’, and I never had the piece when I got on the plane…ever.” Somehow, the answer doesn’t ring wholly true, and a further explanation can be found in the author’s introduction to The Muddy Fork & Other Things: “In journalism I suspect I had a problem with attitude. I wasn’t born with either a hatchet in my hand or a brown stain on my nose.” He goes on to write, “My short stories don’t seem like short stories to me; condensed novels, perhaps, or character studies, or ideas I don’t quite understand yet.”
Whilst James Crumley was doctoring scripts, his novels were gaining cult-status among readers of crime fiction, and he was happy to leave Hollywood when the manuscript for The Mexican Tree Duck was sold. “I missed writing books you know,” he says. “I wrote screenplays for ten years. You work your ass off for a year, a year-and-a-half, and what do you have at the end of it? In my case I at least had a paycheque, but that isn’t the same thing as having a book. I need to write books. Psychologically and personally I need to write books.”
As Crumley has already indicated, he feels that The Mexican Tree Duck and One to Count Cadence are linked in some way, and he reveals further ties between the two novels when he talks about the book that heralds the return of Sonny Sughrue.
“When the translation of One to Count Cadence appeared in France two years ago, I did a lot of promotional work there. During interviews in Paris I spent five or six hours a day talking to people about their Indo-Chinese experiences in Vietnam. I already had the opening, but I am not sure that The Mexican Tree Duck didn’t somehow come out of those conversations.”
The plot sees Sonny trying to locate a missing woman, and the object of the title is the key to many answers. The link to the Vietnam is Sughrue’s former army buddies who, not only come equipped with memories, but also the necessary firepower—and drugs— to resolve the case.
Whether James Crumley will ever complete The Muddy Fork remains to be seen. For the time being he seems to be content to stick with writing crime novels. “I feel those books have done a lot for me,” he says. “They taught me a lot about writing and I think they stand up fairly well as literature.” With a smile he adds, “I think I can say that without to sounding too arrogant.”
Not that this means he is happy with the lack of recognition the genre receives. “Crime fiction doesn’t get the respect that it deserves, but it gets more respect than it used to. Nobody ever handled the language like Chandler. Hammett was a good solid writer, he knew what he was writing about and as a consequence he gives you a view of that gutter-snipe world, but he lacked that very maniac stuff that Chandler could do.”
When asked what fuels his writing, Crumley answers, “Language. I’m not so much about plot, mystery, violence and shit like that, I’m about language. If a sentence is good, then it’s because I have worked it over, and over and over again.”
Crumley goes on to stress that his books are not there to reassure readers. “That’s not what I do,” he says. “Everything doesn’t work out nicely in my books. Bad guys don’t always die, and I don’t think anyone ever goes to prison in my books.” He quickly adds though, “Having said that I think of my books as funny. I don’t think they are dark at all.”
As the interview comes to a close, James Crumley briefly talks about Bordersnakes, his new novel. In the forthcoming instalment Milo Milodragovitch and Sonny Sughrue team up to retrieve a missing fortune.” They know and like each other,” he says, and in Bordersnakes he promises to reveal how his two protagonists met up. Content with life Crumley concludes, “I seem to be working faster know. I’m living with a woman who loves me, it is easier to work, and I am halfway through my knew book which should be finished by the end of the year.”
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1994/2020.