Montana Noir

I moved to Los Angeles from Missoula, Montana, a sweet and scenic university town that is still remote enough to be inspiring, still small enough to be strange. Los Angeles is the only legitimate big city I’ve ever lived in—and I hoped it would make me legitimate too, a real and serious writer. After I moved, I sublet rooms that were unfurnished and infested with insects, and I worked an exhausting restaurant job serving the truly unrewarding clientele of Beverly Hills and Century City, those wealthy retirees and impatient suits. I read Raymond Chandler’s novels of murder and corruption in 1940s Los Angeles, studying the anatomy Chandler devises of a city that sprawls schizophrenically from working class seaside communities to hilltop mansions, which has both old money and legions of transplants, a place where “Hollywood glamour” is a new destabilizing force, a place that’s still becoming an industry town. The noir suited my mood. 

The most enduring interest in my writing is the amorphous concept of “place”—regional histories and idiosyncrasies and emergencies—and I came to see that place is the language that detective stories secretly speak. Chandler’s novels transformed the detective genre because they are so little about big city crime; they are about an American west that is still inventing itself. Everything that the noir implies—violence, corrupt authority, ambiguous gender dynamics, creepiness, ennui, and mysteries that are more exhausting than compelling—is suited to the remote outposts; the boom economy; the drug addicts, con-men, radicals and spectators; the intermittently grand and desolate landscapes that define the last stretch of the American continent. This is as true in Chandler’s neon-bright Los Angeles as David Lynch’s small-town Washington in Twin Peaks as the murderers’ desperate, dreamy retreat to Las Vegas in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

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It seems fitting that my reading led me, like a private dick on the trail of a fugitive, back to where I came from, to Montana and the crime writer who was Chandler’s truest heir: James Crumley. Crumley lived in Missoula for thirty-five years before his death in 2008—just a year before I moved there. I’ve hung out for hours in bars with pictures of Crumley by his favorite stools, and English professors and barflies alike have stories about him. Crumley’s detective novels take him to hippie communes in Montana, to pornographers’ headquarters in Denver, to various Indian reservations, to Mexico, to hot springs, to fishing holes, to the desert and the mountains. His books often take place in Meriwether, his fictional Missoula, but their true setting is transient, all the lonely highways of the west. 

Crumley’s masterpiece is his third novel, The Last Good Kiss, published in 1978. In it, one of Crumley’s detective alter egos, C.W. Sughrue, is hired to track a writer, Abraham Trahearne, who is on an epic traveling binge. Sughrue finds Trahearne but is drawn into another case, the mystery of a high school girl named Betty Sue Flowers who disappeared on the streets of San Francisco ten years earlier. Trahearne and Sughrue follow Betty Sue’s whispering trail up and down California and onwards to Oregon and Colorado. Sughrue compares Trahearne many times to a giant, alcoholic, philandering child, and he is on babysitting duty while Trahearne is away from the three women who loom over his life, his wife, his ex-wife, and his mother. 

Crumley borrowed the title of The Last Good Kiss from Richard Hugo’s famous poem “Degrees of Grey in Phillipsburg,” an excerpt from which serves as the novel’s epigraph. Hugo is Missoula’s patron saint, a poet who chronicled loss, and longing all along Montana’s interstates and access roads and fishing streams. He and his cohort of Missoula writers, including William Kittredge and James Welch, are the reason Montana is famous for its regional writing—they were the vanguard of the New West, using the state’s majesty and desolation as a backdrop to contemplate place-ness. It was Hugo who first recommended that Crumley read Raymond Chandler, when they were colleagues at the University of Montana in the early 1970s, and Crumley dedicated The Last Good Kiss to Hugo, calling him a “grand old detective of the heart.” Hugo’s poems have an affinity for the noir, containing as they do so much alcoholic sentimentality and dispossession. He writes in his poem, “The Only Bar in Dixon,” “Home. Home. I knew it entering./Green cheap plaster and the stores/across3437195 the street toward the river/failed.”

As Crumley writes in The Last Good Kiss, “You can’t go home again even if you stay there, and now that everyplace is the same, there’s no place to run.” With the line from “Degrees of Grey in Phillipsburg” as its guiding star—“The last good kiss/you had was years ago”—Crumley’s novel is about nostalgia and loss, a present where Trahearne must pursue his insane appetites because he is afraid that he has “topped the last good woman, had the last good drink out of the bottle, and written the last good line,” and where Sughrue fears who the dazzling specter of Betty Sue Flowers would be if he found her now in the flesh.  

In this way The Last Good Kiss starkly illustrates a noir trope: men, even those who act the most jaded, are romantic and idealistic, where women are faithful and practical—or swap those female attributes for cruel and scheming. Trahearne’s ex-wife Catherine is the one who hires Sughrue to find him, and she is the most noir female in the novel. She is stunning and calculatingly seductive. “I work like the devil keeping this aged body intact and I endure yearly humiliations at the hands of expensive plastic surgeons so I can enjoy my declining years,” she tells Sughrue, displaying the habit many women in mystery novels have of explaining themselves awkwardly and at length. 

She is still committed to Trahearne, but her love is ugly, cynical. There is an amazing moment where her jealousy of Trahearne’s current wife physically transforms her, as “rage flattened her lips and stretched the skin tightly across the bones of her face until they seemed to glow like a mummy’s skull through parchment.” But Crumley does not condemn Catherine’s amoral passion as strongly as Trahearne’s sentimentality and self-indulgence. What at first appears like a bulldozing joie de vivre reveals itself as weakness, irresponsibility, and an easy tendency to be complicit, to be used by a personality like Catherine’s.

It is difficult to know what to make of this turn in Trahearne’s characterization—because Richard Hugo did not only provide the inspiration for The Last Good Kiss’ title. It is clear that to some extent he is Trahearne. You could have used Trahearne’s physical description, as a big man bearing some resemblance to a longshoreman, to pick Hugo out in a line-up. Trahearne shares Hugo’s childhood in Seattle and his service in World War II. At one point Sughrue finds a poem of Trahearne’s (“Dark water holds you/down. Whales sound deep into the glacier’s/trace”) that reads like a parody of Hugo’s great poem “The Lady in Kickinghorse Reservoir.” (“Green tons hold you down, and ten bass curve/teasing in your hair.”)

I believe it is in this, The Last Good Kiss’ experiments with metafiction and its funhouse-mirror relationship with real life, that it makes its run for greatness. Crumley’s description of Trahearne’s poetic mission could double for Hugo’s: “He wrote about… small towns whose futures had become hostage to freeways, about truck-stop waitresses whose best hope is moving to Omaha or Cheyenne, about pasts what hung around like unwelcome ghosts.” But unlike Hugo, Trahearne also wrote three novels, which despite being bestsellers, Sughrue describes as 

fair hack work cluttered with literary allusions and symbols… The male characters, even the villains and cowards, cling to a macho code so blatant even an illiterate punk in an east L.A. pachuco gang could understand it immediately. The female characters serve as stage props, scenery, and victims.

In this unexpected burst of literary criticism, do we hear a shiver of self-reproach? Crumley writes how Trahearne’s mother was a single schoolteacher who was run out of her small Montana town when she became pregnant with him. She wrote two novels about a single mother raising her son in rural Montana, made one million dollars, and moved back to buy up most of her hometown. As Sughrue narrates, “she didn’t bother to write the best novel of all, she lived it.” I see a connection here to the relationships crime novelists have to their detectives, most of whom seem to be enacting a writer fantasy about being sexily immune to rejection.

unknownIn his classic book of writing advice, The Triggering Town, Hugo proclaims to many readers’ surprise that although many of his most famous poems are about real places, he made up almost everything he wrote about them. Hugo explains, “the true or valid triggering subject [for a poem] is one in which physical characteristics or details correspond to attitudes in the poet has toward the world and himself. For me, a small town that has seen better days often works.” Place is a vehicle to explore and conceal his true loyalties—to his personality, his feelings, and his imagination. 

The most interesting specimens of noir use place—and, for that matter, crime—in surprisingly the same way, to expose the writer and the audience’s secret desires. In The Last Good Kiss, Sughrue admits that he is no prize—“In the right light, I could pass for forty, though I was a couple of years younger than that,” he says—but women from a hard-scrabble but lissome twenty-four year old in Denver to Trahearne’s glamorous ex-wife still throw themselves at him. Crumley and Sughrue were both Vietnam veterans from South Texas with drinking problems and a surprising knowledge of English literature. Just as Crumley transformed his friend Hugo into the noir nightmare of the cowardly villain, he transformed himself into the ultimate noir hero, the solitary, sardonic detective. Just as I transform myself here to a legitimate writer, a Los Angeles writer. In my self-pity, don’t the details of my crappy job and my crappy apartments sound true, don’t they sound literary? Crumley explores writing in The Last Good Kiss not as pure and transcendent art, but as a place where people turn to get what they want—a place where all is fair, as long as you don’t expect a happy ending. 

Alice Bolin is a writer living in Southern California.