I mentioned a couple days ago that this week I am participating in a project initiated by Ohio blogger, interviewer and book reviewer Jen Forbus called Detectives Around the World. The subject of my contribution is James Crumley, my home town’s famous resident crime writer who died just over 18 months ago in the hospital where I was born. This little essay isn’t a profile of the man — a simple Google or Wikipedia search will give you plenty of information about him — but instead a commentary on how the environment of Montana shaped and influenced the characters and stories of his detective fiction. Besides, if you really want to know Crumley, you should get off the computer and go track down his novels. I was a spectator at a panel discussion during the Montana Festival of the Book last year where a panel of four great writers — Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman and James Grady — extolled the influence of Crumley via the questions posed by moderator Michael Koepf concerning Crumley’s classic, The Last Good Kiss. His influence on this batch of writers — some of the best in the business — as well as other names like Michael Connelly and Duane Swierczynski cannot be understated.
The opening line of The Right Madness begins:
It was a lovely, calm Montana summer evening, a Saturday night after a long weekend of softball. The full moon rose blazing over Mount Sentinel, outlining the maw of the Hellgate Canyon with silver fire.
This is a shot from Broadway Avenue, looking east into the very maw of Hellgate Canyon, which curves to the left between the two hillsides you can see in the distance, on a cold Sunday morning in April when the wind that whips through that land form will chill you to the bone.
It’s called Hellgate because the Blackfeet Indians, the only tribe to force the Lewis & Clark expedition to fire their weapons in defense, used to waylay travelers that passed through the canyon.
As for Mount Sentinel, it looms over the city of Missoula, the big “M” on its face calling attention to the University of Montana.
A trail will take you about halfway up the face of the mountain to the “M” itself, providing views of the city below.
You can even go all the way to the top of the mountain, with gorgeous views north and east.
Montana is a rugged place. Cold in winter, hot in summer, with lots of space to lose yourself in. Driving is a way of life out here, over roads and highways that offer myriad paths to destruction if one doesn’t remain alert.
This is the world Crumley’s characters live in. So often in crime novels we find ourselves as readers in urban environments — big cities like New York or Los Angeles. Crumley’s books aren’t like that. They tell the stories of characters not just on the fringes of that kind of life, but way out on the hinterlands. They embody a character associated so often with the West — the hardy soul with a checkered past just trying to live below the radar. They live in a world populated by dingy bars, pawn shops and bail bondsmen.
They inhabit scuzzy motel rooms, drinking themselves to oblivion and filling their bodies with drugs that only deepen the sorrow when the high wears off.
Crumley’s literary tour through Montana is a road trip with two similar, yet very different, detectives, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue. Their stories are told in individual novels, yet they team up in the novel Bordersnakes. Where Milo is generally viewed as the kinder and gentler of the two, neither man is one to shy from violence. In more than one interview Crumley described Milo as the good side of his own personality, and Sughrue the bad. He could write their world because it was the world he often lived in, and it was the world that surrounded him in his home in Missoula, where all of these city photos were taken.
Missoula is a beautiful, progressive city, but maintains an odd cross-section of archetypes. Hippies sit shoulder to shoulder with salty old ranchers at any given diner in town. It is a liberal oasis in an otherwise conservative state. Downtown is a vibrant and happening area, unlike many cities in America, even as we grapple with a significant homeless population.
Crumley writes this environment with authority, touching on themes like the opposing ethics of environmentalists squaring off with independent-minded locals who think nothing of poaching an elk off their own property via the tried-and-true method of the salt lick and spotlight. He writes about the troubled, the underbelly, and the distances people go to obtain whatever their given vice might be. Crumley himself was bedeviled by his vices, which ultimately sapped his health and claimed his life.
The closest thing you will find to a sign indicating you have found his favorite bar are the initials on the front door to Charlie B’s.
It’s right across the street from another Missoula landmark, the venerable Oxford.
The walls inside Charlie’s are lined with great portraits, and when I visited on a Sunday afternoon it was populated by a mostly older crowd. By evening, especially on weekends, the room is taken over by college kids and hipsters.
I immediately struck up a conversation with a couple old retired guys, and soon we were talking like old friends. One of the local homeless women came in and was accosted by the bartender. Apparently she’d already been thrown out just before I arrived for going to each customer and offering blowjobs for as little as $6. To me, that scene was as Crumleyesque as anything I could hope to witness.
Crumley’s passing is a sad one. His presence in Missoula, and in literature, is greatly missed. I regret never having met the man, though he was pointed out to me one time crossing Higgins Avenue downtown. Sadly, much of what made Montana the last bastion of the lost has passed as well. People move in from out of state and change the culture. House prices go up and force the old salts out. The logging industry that was such a crucial part of the economic fabric is extinct; two major mills at opposite ends of the valley, including one where my father worked for more than 43 years, have closed down to the tune of hundreds of jobs lost. While this environment remains ripe for the kinds of stories Crumley’s characters would be embroiled in — the desperate trying to survive by whatever means they deem necessary — it still feels vastly different as parts of the city morph into the big box hell that so much of America is becoming. Nonetheless, the old rebellious spirit raises its head in strange places. Like in the shed-like bar 15 minutes east of town that refuses to acknowledge the statewide smoking ban.
I think Crumley would be proud.