Monday, June 6, 2016

Review: The Last Good Kiss

The Last Good Kiss The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a basic system for rating genre fiction: if it’s ordinary in the sense that it “gets” the rules of the genre but still delivers a solid story, I give it three stars. (If it’s worse than that, I rarely bother to finish it. Cutting out on bad books is privilege of getting older.) If it introduces a nice twist – whether of character, setting, insight, or novelty of plot – I’ll go four stars, and that’s pretty much the best I’m hoping for when I pick up a mystery or a fantasy novel. Five stars, I believe, get reserved for books that invent themselves, and genre, by definition seems to me something that depends on the invention(s) of other writing.

Then there are those books that create the genre itself. That could be The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, or it could be something by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.

And that brings me to Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. I’d heard great things about this novel. At least a couple people describe it as they key missing link in the evolution of neo-noir, the book that links Chandler to something like James Sallis’s Drive. And it may well be that; I have more reading to go before I affirm that kind of a claim.

But what this book clearly does is reanimate the genre in a way that makes it feel almost like a reinvention. I love Chandler, and when I read him I hear a specific voice and think of a specific time and place. Weirdly, when I read this book, I hear almost that same Chandler voice but in a different time and a different place. This is not 1930s L.A.; it’s 1970s Montana (with some San Francisco thrown in). But somehow there’s the same wearied idealism, the same willingness to align with a lost cause in defense of an ideal that never comes quite clear.

This book is so skillfully done, in other words, that feels as if it’s inventing a kind of writing that already exists. Sughrue could almost be Marlowe, yet – in a way that reflects the 1970s – he has a faded technicolor hue rather than a noir one. (Though it amounts to the same effect in its different color scheme.) You believe that he’d take up with an alcoholic bulldog, and you believe that he’d admire a poet like Trahearne – who is himself a kind of James Dickey poet/novelist writing about a nearly obscured American masculinity.

And Betty Lee Flowers turns out to be a great heroine for the age. A particular beauty sullied by one assault after another who never stops being deeply desirable.

I couldn’t predict the twists at the end – I trust it isn’t a spoiler to say that the weight of the novel runs toward keeping Trahearne writing at all costs, a nice self-pitying noir anxiety for any tough-guy writer to ruminate over – but I feel, from knowing my Chandler, as if I could predict the emotional trajectory.

And yet, I’ll also say “so what” to that predictability. It so fully embraces the genre that it feels as if it’s making up the rules in the same moment as it follows them more effectively than any other story I can think of. Definitely worth reading and satisfying on many levels.

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