Missoula - James Crumley


 Sitting at the bar of the Top Hat on Front Street, I make another attempt at calling James Crumley, and for the fifth time I get his answering service, who will once again certainly give him the message as soon as he calls in. It has not been a good day. Most of it has been spent in airports or airplanes, including an enchanting stopover in Salt Lake City, where you can't get a drink except with food, which means that the bar does cracking business with a peculiarly repellent line of cookies which apparently conform to the Mormon definition of food. My big mistake was actually eating one of these cookies rather than just piling them up on my plate after the fashion of my fellow drinkers who had clearly passed this way before.


Arriving in Missoula I was welcomed by a wave of unforced friendliness and the news that my credit card was 'maxed out' and thus rendered me unfit to rent a car. After considerable faffing about the remarkably helpful car rental folks manage to fix me up with the local branch of Rent-a-Wreck, who are actually willing to accept cash.


An hour later I've checked into a motel on East Broadway, driven around Missoula's new western suburbs, and inadvertently consumed a Big Mac, in between whiles attempting to call Crumley. Towards 6 o'clock I wind up back in the old town centre, walk around a little and decide to rest up a while in the Top Hat, a big dark bar, with a stage at the back and pool tables in the centre. It's quiet and it's dark and after a couple of Dos Equis I've summoned up enough bonhomie to start talking to the laid-back longhair barman. I explain I'm here to see James Crumley and he says, 'Oh God, Crum-bley! He was here just a couple of hours ago. have you tried him at home?' Well, yes that's just what I've been doing. O.K. says the barman, let's try Charlies. He picks up the phone and gets what is clearly another bar on the line  and asks has Crumley been in? The word comes back that Crumley has inddeed been in, has just left and was thought to be heading homewards. Another call to his home is picked up by the answering service. The barman says tell them you're in the Top Hat. So I do. And barely has enough time to order another drink elapsed before the phone rings and it's Crumley to say come on over, Frank'll tell you where I live. So Frank draws me a map, which, while somewhat short on street names and long on directions of the 'turn left by the big tree' variety, still proves servicable enough.




Crumley is easily cast as the Hemingway of the detective novel. He's a big bearded bear-like man who loves to drink and raise hell and talk about literature. He writes books about troubled macho men, adrift in a world where simple values, a desire for decency, can get you killed; books in which the hero is doomed always to lose the girl in the last chapter, desparately romantic novels of the private eye as the last denizen of the old west; novels in which Missoula, renamed Meriwether, stands as the last simple place left.


Crumley has only written four novels in 20 years, the first, One To Count Cadence, came out in 1969 and is rooted in Crumley's time in the army in the early days of the Vietnam war. The three succeeding novels, appearing at intervals of five years or so, The Wrong Case, The Last Good Kiss and Dancing Bear, are all private eye novels of a sort. All are based around the northwest USA.


This tough-guy romanticism peaked with The Last Good Kiss, in which Texan Vietnam vet CW Sughrue, part-time PI and part-time bartender, searches the north-west states for a woman named Betty Sue Flowers. The book opens, however, with Sughrue running down an alcoholic midle-aged novelist named Abraham Trahearne, a self-consciously Hemingwayesque bull of a man. Trahearne leads Sughrue though a liver-critical interstate bar crawl; 'We covered the west, touring the bars, seeing the sights. The Chugwater Hotel down in Wyoming, the Mayflower in Cheyenne, the Stockman's in Rawlins, a barbed-wire collection in the Sacjawea Hotel Bar in Three Forks, Montana, rocks in Fossil, Oregon, drunken Mormons all over northern Utah and southern Idaho - circling, wandering in an aimless drift. Twice I hired private planes to get ahead of the old man, and twice he failed to show up until after I had left. I liked his taste in bars but I was in and out of so many that they began to seem like the same endless bar.'


Chasing Crumley around the bars of Missoula is hardly in the same league but when I succeed in following Frank's map to Crumley's place there's a distinct sense of relief that attaches to finding him in, drinking a can of Pabst Blue Riband and talking down the phone to someone who would appear to have a) just gotten married and b) quit using cocaine, both admissions provoking gales of laughter from Crumley. He puts down the phone and welcomes me in, mi casa es su casa style, fetches some more cans of Pabst from the refrigerator and introduces his two boys, aged around 4 and 6, the product of his now defunct fourth marriage. They're watching cable TV and do their best to look intersted in the visitor for at least fifteen seconds. A couple more Pabsts and supplies are looking low so Crumley calls up a neighbour to come over and watch the kids while we go out for supplies.


The neighbour turns out to be a young man on a motorbike named Steve, a student out at the University. He's brought over a story he's working on. We leave him to it and head over to Charley's. Where I get intriduced to a bunch of people including a man named Denis MacMillan who looks like one of the Flying Burrito Brothers circa Gilded Palace Of Sin - somewhere between country hippie and riverboat gambler, and turns out to be the publisher Denis MacMillan, the man responsible for one of the most interesting small presses currently extant in the states, specialising in neglected works by crime writers like Charles Willeford and Jim Thompson, and recently responsible for putting out a collectio of Crumley's short stories, simply entitled Whores. We discuss the possiblilty of shooting some pool but by now its time to leave and put Crumley's kids to bed. On the way out we pick up a crate of beer, 'Just put it on my slate' says Crumley and the woman behind the bar smiles the resigned smile of someone used to dealing with writers whose income comprises irregular large cheques leavened with long stetches of scuffling.


After all, everyone in Missoula seems to be a writer. The guy in the Top Hat told me his brother had a book out. Crumley's telling me about a great book written by a local cop, James Lee Burke will be moving up here for good soon, there's a major Creative Writing Programme out at the University and then there's the likes of William Kittredge, Jon Jackson, Richard FOrd and THomas McGuane all living within hailing distance.


Back at Crumley's place, he disentangles the kids from the TV, gets into a little horseplay and puts them to bed. Meanwhile I sit aroung talkiing to Steve and listening to Jimmy Buffett sing Margaritaville on the tape player. Crumley comes back into the living room and starts talking about how he finally doesn't care if people call him a crime or mystery writer, 'I used to be ashamed of it', he says, 'there's a feeling you get in academic circles that it's a lesser form. But I look at Elmore Leonard, I look at Ross Thomas, why should I be ashamed to stand alongside these guys? Great fucking writers!' We're all happy enough to drink to that and the evening starts to blur. Crumley's firing on all cylinders. People from Charlie's start drifting by. Denis MacMillan comes by with a pile fo his books for me for which I'm incoherently grateful. We send out for sandwiches in an effort to moderate the booze, but they take a couple of hours to arrive, by which time it's far too little, too late.


Last thing I remember is digging through Crumley's tape collection and finding a David Allan Coe collection. Coe is one of country music's major mavericks, he certainly did some time in Ohio State Prison in the 60s, he claims he killed a man while he was there, others doubt it, but the fact he makes the claim gives you some idea of what you're dealing with. After he got out he built a career as the troubadour of the outlaw biker gang, selling albums of deliberatle obscenity through the small ads columns of Easy Ridersand suchlike. Meanwhile he was also writing straight country songs and hawking them around Nashville. One of these, Would You Lay With Me In a Field Of Stone, was a country number one for Tanya Tucker in 1973, and is as lovely and tender a song as country music has produced. Since then Coe has carved out a career which veers between extremes of bragadoccio and self-pity, shot through with moents of something like beauty. His ethos is outlaw country through and through, one of his mid 80s albums features songs dedicated to no less than four ex-wives. I put the tape on and Crumley reacts the way you do when an old friend turned reprobate drunk shows up on your porch and you're half cut yourself. Like oh Jesus, here we go!


Next morning I'm woken up by some bastard banging on the door at what must be about six o' clock. Wrapping myself in a sheet I drag myself to the door to encounter a grinning Crumley, looking disgustingly healthy in a sweatshirt and jeans. He tells me it's 11 o' clock, he's taking the kids for breakfast and aren't I coming along? Slowly my eyes start to focus and I notice that the kids are waving at me fron the back of the jeep. Half an hour I plead and go throw some cold water at my face.


Forty minutes or so later we're in a booth at the ???, a vaguely hippified place near the rail road tracks, the part of Missoula where you turn in any direction and see an Edward Hopper vista. Crumley's jammed on to a bench with his kids, they‘re both burrowing into him, and he tells me he's taking them back to their mother in a couple of hours. She's looking to find a job out of state, which Crumley is all in favour of, inasmuch as it'll relieve him of a crippling burden of alimony, but which turn of events is also desolating him and the children both. Watching then clambering all of him, in the mood of morbid sentimentality that acute hangovers provoke in me, is almost to much to take, so I speedily order up the giant Tex-Mex style breakfast, a mammoth plate  of chili, hash browns, sausages, tomatoes and an omelette, which has a sufficiently cathartic effect on my nervous system to put aside sentiment for the moment.


After breakfast we head back to Crumley's for a warm-up beer and to meet Bob Reid. Bob's a detective with the Missoula Police Department and, this being Missoula, he has of course written a book. He's got a copy with him for me, its a paperback original called Big Sky Blues and reading it on the plane to Chicago it turns out that the quote on the back has it about right - 'perhaps the finest police novel I've ever read... wonderful writing, fine characters'. The author of the quote is James Crumley, of course, Missoula writers looking after their own.


Bob Reid is a clean cut guy in jeans, looks a little like a sporty teacher amd, to coin a phrase, not old enough to be the father of teenage kids. Bob tells me he works violent crime; it's 'more interesting' than the other kind. He just drifted into the police about eight years previously, needing, apart form anything else, the money to support his family during Reagan's first years. He took a while to fit in, he'd been writing before, 'kind of subversive stuff, I guess'. Like Ray Bartell in Big Sky Blues, Bob seems like a huntin' fishin' and poetry readin' kind of guy, so after a while his colleagues figured that two out of three ain't bad. Further suspicion was generated when they found out he'd written a book. But Big Sky Blues is no Serpico style tale of one honest cop fighting the bad guys off and on the force with only his trusty magnum to protect him. Rather it is a genuinely sensitive attempt to get to grips with what being a police detective is, and, from that, what masculinity is and how decency can operate in an unjust and unfair society. It's not a book in favour of the police or opposed to the police, it's simply a book about the police written by a real writer who is also a policeman. And now his colleagues are coming up to him quietly, 'Bob, let me tell you about the time...'.


By now it's time for Crumley to get the kids ready to go to their mother's, He suggests I call back around late afternoon, there's something going on at Charley's. I decide to take my hangover out into the big sky countryside and, just for reference purposes, ask Crumley if he can reccomend a nice drive with perhaps a good bar at the end of it. He tells me that the Lumberjack, out past Lollo on the Idaho road, is the place for me. Bob says, 'Oh yeah, uh, you mean the place where the bikers hang out? Well... it should be OK this time of day.' What the hell I say, enjoying the sensation of invulnerability that goes with having recently and voluntarily destroyed millions of your own brain cells. So its goodbye to Bob, Crumley stomps off to see to the kids, and I head off in the Chevy.


Out thru south west Missoula, with its shopping mall and Macdonalds, past the timber yards on the way to Lollo, thru Lollo itself, less a place than two bars and a truckstop, miss the turn-off, double back and climb for a while up the side of the valley, before turning on to a dirt track for a mile or so and seeing a building built entirely from giant logs laid horizontally on top of each other, that's the Lumberjack.


And after a brisk stroll amongst some very tall trees, a babbling brook and the remnants of the winter's snow, designed to convince myself of my love of nature and devotion to the cult of the body, it's time to venture into the Lumberjack for a little rest and recuperation hopefully non-inclusive of a skull-busting from crazed bikers. Inside there's absolutely no sign of  any bikers, crazed or otherwise, instead there's a collection of notably rowdy young people playing pool, drinking beer and singing along to party records on the juke box, all of which young people, as it happens, female. I park myself at the bar which, like my seat and the vast majority of the place's furnishings, is constructed out of huge logs.


Nursing a beer, I start to suffer intensely from the strain of listening to Chris Montez' Lets Dance followed by Danny and the Juniors' At The Hop, followed by The Contours' Do You Love Me, all with whooping accompaniment from the pool crew, so I gingerly make my way to the jukebox and put on my quarter's worth - Rodney Crowell's miserable going on maudlin country ballad After All This Time. The intrusion of this note of beer-sodden gloom doesn't go down too well with the gels, angry muttering starts up as they try to figure out which killjoy was responsible for putting this on. They're just about to get it right when some other stranger in town walks up to the bar and rings the big old bell hanging there. 'Do you know what you just did?' enquires the woman behind the bar gently, 'because what you just did was announce you're going to bu a round for the whole bar'. And sure enough there a faded note next to the bell explaining this quaint local custom. The resultant debate as to whether the sucker should pay up distracts attention from my questionable musical taste and I decide its time to get back, leaving just as the first strains of my second selection, the Shirelles singing Baby Its You, waft from the jukebox. Shame,


Back to Crumley's and he's not there. So, figuring that when in Missoula... I head on to Charley's and sure enough Crumley is holding court at the front of the bar. He's still on a high and falls on me as his nearest and dearest. The place is packed already, turns out this is the occasion of J.Rummel's birthday. J.Rummel is Missoula's resident artist, one of his pieces hangs behind the bar at Charley's, another is on Crumley's wall. He's fifty today and is holding court at the back of the bar, another big bearded man running to fat in jeans, cowboy boots and a stetson. The atmosphere in Charley's suggests a kind of gathering of the clans, following the literal big chill that's gripped Missoula for the past months. The wind chill factor had brought the temperature down on occasion to minus 100, everyone's been too cold to go out. Denis Macmillan says he's had enough and will move to Hawaii before next winter. Now everyone's jumping at the first chance to get out and party without risking frostbite setting in on the way home. The place is full of authentic sixties survivors.


History is being rewritten so fast these days that it's easy to believe that the kind of people you see on thirtysomething are sixties survivors, radicals turned yuppies, in fact they're seventies survivors, people who caught the fag-end of the hippie thing, people who maybe saw Woodstock when it showed up on TV, but whose formative musical memories are later, Joni Mitchell and the Eagles. The seventies generation never sold out, they had nothing to sell, liking the Eagles and then working in advertising hardly indicates a loss of faith, simply a tendency to go with the flow.


The fortysomethings in Charley's, celebrating J.Rummel's fiftieth, have signally failed to go with the flow; these are people who used to like the Grateful Dead or Country Joe, now they'll listen to Hank Williams or Patsy Cline, people who've mostly been divorced at least one time and still come to Charley's to drink and flirt. It's easier for the men who have, at forty, a range of flattering adjectives available - rugged, lived in, experienced, worldly - enough to let them try and charm the pants off stray college girls looking for adventure. For the women in Charley's it looks like murder, at forty you've been married to every damn man you can stand in the place, and so you say what the hell and you try and act like the guys act but you know that sooner than later people are going to tell you you're an embarrassment.


Still at seven o'clock the joint is jumping. As I push my way through the throng, looking for the toilets, Denis Macmillan calls me from the bar, wants to buy me a tequila so I fall in with him and his drinking buddies for a while. The drinking buddies include an old guy who says he came over here from Ireland to work in the mines, but is too drunk to remember when, and a guy with an unnerving stare, says his name is Jim and he's a painter, also he's the short-order cook at the place we had breakfast. He saw me with Crumley and would like to know what I'm doing here. I tell him I'm a writer and he enquires as to what the fucking hell writers think they know about anything and why they fucking thing anyone should pay them for it. I equivocate a little and he debates whether or not to hit me. Fortunately he realises that in the state of drunkenness he's achieved  he is more liable to fall over than connect, so he settles for giving me his life story instead. Turn's out he's half Indian, which maybe explains his remarkable cheekbones, and has no money, which maybe explains his antipathy to people who do. By now Denis, wearing a superfine western shirt that turns out to be an early Ralph Lauren, has bought us all further Tequilas and beer chasers and my second evening in Missoula starts to blur like the first.


Crumley disappeared at some point to go have dinner with his new girl friend, 'a feminist' he says, 'she keeps me in line'. Denis tells me that Crumley only has two states, 'in love or hurt in love'. A western swing band starts up and soon the whole place is dancing apart from those of us welded to the bar, J.Rummel gets up to sing some hank Williams songs, there's a commotion when an ANgel on on a Harley drives right thru the bar as a mark of respect to Rummel. By the time we leave the men are all singing and the women crying into their beer.


Next morning after another kill or cure breakfast and the discovery that even Missoula has a Sunday paper it takes two hands to lift, I decide its time to try and get some kind of formal interview done with Crumley. So around one o' clock I go and bang on his door. After a minute or so I hear a grunt and then Crumley staggers up to the door, half dressed and looking decidedly rough. 'How are you doing?' I say, somewhat unnecessarily, Crumley groans and says, 'You know, you can have too much fun.' He's going back to bed and suggests we meet up in the evening. try and do the interview then. So I decide to go visit Denis MacMillan. I get around to his hous only to find nobody home. As I'm wondering what to do next, a figure with longish fair hair, wearing a white suit and walking a large dog, hoves too. Lo, it's Denis. He invites me in and says he'll make himself something to eat, then we'll go for a ride in the Cadillac he bought from Crumley, maybe drive out down Bitterroot valley call in on Jon Jackson, another Montana crime writer.


While Denis is getting busy in the kitchen, he plays me some video tapes of his friend Charles WIlleford, being interviewed on Miami public service TV. WIlleford is great, looking like a caricature of a gin-soaked old soldier; bald headed, with a huge, bristling mustache, courteous to interviewers who clearly know next to nothing about him, but possessed of a ferociously dry sense of humour. Denis is clearly much saddened by Willeford's death last year, and told me with some frustration that Willeford's widow, Betsey, was putting a stop to the exceptionally well presented series of re-issues that he, Denis, was putting out, apparently having acquired a somewhat inflated idea of the commercial potential of her husband's catalogue. By now Denis is ready to go, so after giving us a quick guided tour of his awesome book collection, we head out to the car.


Which is a Cadillac Fleetwoood limousine, which may not be as large as a house, but the back seat alone is bigger than certain hotel rooms I've stayed in. It does approximately zero miles to the gallon but it drives like a dream once we hit the open road, out past Lollo. The Bitterroot Valley is extraordinary, a green I've only seen before in pictures of China. Then we turn on to small country roads heading to Jon Jackson's place. Jackson wrote two books in the late 70s, the Diehard and The Blind Pig, both both fine urban thrillers featuring a Detroit cop named Mulheisen. Since then it's been hard time for Jackson, his first wife died, he was drinking heavily, couldn't get another novel published. Now maybe things are looking up, he's remarried, quit drinking, Denis re-issued The Blind Pig, and he's reportedy hard at work in his garden shed. Not today he isn't though; when we arrive at Jackson's place both shed and house are locked up.


Such is life, we head back down the valley, and seeing as it's now late afternoon we stop off at one of Lollo's bars, the Traveller's Rest or somesuch. There's a bunch of bikes outside. When we go in it turns out that one of them belongs to Steve, Crumley's babysitter of the other night. He's deep in conversation with a moderately serious looking biker named Mel, who gives us the hard stare treatment until Denis' southern charm wins him over. Apparently him and Steve met by the side of the road, where Mel was having something of a bust-up with his old lady, the upshot of which was that Mel and Steve went racing along the road to Idaho, and the old lady got left in the middle of nowhere, trying to thumb a ride home. Which she appeared to have succeeded in doing by the time Mel and Steve came back to see if, as Mel put it, 'she'd learned her lesson'. Mel's clearly enjoying impressing Steve with what a bad mothefucker he is, tells us that he's serving some kind of apprenticeship before joining the local chapter of motorbike desperadoes. Then he tells us about some real bad guys he knows, survivalists living up in the Idaho hills.


Frightening people he says, which is about right. The north west's deserved reputation as the last unspoilt place left has appealed not only to migratory writers but also to the that section of American society that combines belief in such things as the literal truth of the Old Testament with a conviction that nuclear war is both inevitable and survivable. Which combination of beliefs leads people to arm themselves to the teeth and head for the hills, there to form post-Manson communities which have a tendency (as in the case of ????) to start killing anyone who comes near them and eventually each other. What is worrying is the prospect of these various communes starting to organise together. This weekend the local pepars are full of news about a neo-nazi skinhead get together in Idaho. The general concensus seems to have been that its a hyped up non-event. But there is certainly some scary shit stirring in the beautiful northwest.


Back in Missoula Crumley is partially revived but obviously down. We head off to Charley's but conversation is hard work. I make the mistake of asking what's happening with the script Crumley has written for Judge Dredd, The Movie. Last time I'd met Crumley, this actually looked like getting made. Crumley had written it, like several previous scripts, with his friend, the director Tim Hunter, and he felt that here at last was a project so copper bottomed commercial that it had to be made. He should of known better, maybe, he's now been working on and off in Holly wood for twenty years. Each one of his books has been bought for the movies, yet none of his screenplays have been made or his books been filmed, despite Joe Gores telling me that Crumley and Hunter's screeplay for Dancing Bear was one of the very best he'd ever read. The trouble this time seems to be that the people with the money had fixated on Scwarzenegger as the man to be Judge Dredd, a part in which you would never see the actor's face anyway, and it turns out that Arnie is booked up to somewhere round the year 2000 and much as he might like to can't do it... Talking about the screenwriting now, Crumley is distinctly wearied; "It's too much work for too little return. When you finish a screenplay, you've put a year's hard work into it and more often than not all you've got is the check. It's a survivable experience but not a very pleasant one."


We adjourn to a nearby Italian resturant to see if food will liven the converation up. It doesn't, even the Chianti fails to help, and shortly we abandon the attempt at an interview till first thing the following morning. At which Crumley suddnely brightens and tells me about the time a Gernan film crew came to interview him, but were never able to pin him down at all. On this ominous note he goes back home to get some sleep. Showing rather less good sense I head back to Charley's, meet up with Dennis, and in the course of the next several hours; play some pool, adjourn to a place called the 8 Ball where we can play snooker till it closes, return to Charley's for several nightcaps and round the evening off back at Dennis's, tearing the side door off the Chevy somewhere along the way.


So at nine a.m. the next morning it's a rested, if still subdued, Crumley who has distinctly the advantage as I attempt to conduct an interview




James Crumley is not an easy man to interview. The turning on of a tape recorder has a tendency to send him into instant English professor mode, the simplest query will receive an answer of considerable abstraction, both formal and rambling. This stems in paticular from the entirely reasonable desire that his work should be seen as work and not as autobiography. It's a fear particulalry well-grounded for Crumley. More perhaps than with any other crime writer ouside of Hammett, Crumley's readers want to believe that this is a man who walks it like he talks it. Crumley's heroes are so much the dream apotheoses of every sixties survivor, so simply romantic. Sughrue in The Last Good Kiss is the perfect hard-boiled hero for the fortysomething Vietnam generation;


Home? Home is my apartment on the east side of Hell-Roaring Creek, three rooms where I have to open the closets and drawers to be sure I'm in the right place. Home? try a motel bar at eleven o'clock on a Sunday night, my silence shared by a pretty barmaid who thinks I'm a creep and some asshole in a plastic jacket who thinks I'm his buddy. (The Last Good Kiss)


And, of course, what makes Crumley so keen to distance himself from his characters is precisely a sense that perhaps he isn't that far away from them. It's undeniably tempting the Hemingway idea of the man behind the books being his ultimate creation. In Charley's a couple of nights before, Crumley was revelling in it. Now he's weary, wrung out from the effort of being the public James Crumley; 'I guess I'm the last writer in Missoula still to spend some time hanging out, to have a home bar. But even I feel like drifting away from thsat now'.


After talking for a while about writing in fairly general terms, Crumley suddenly shifts up, or perhaps down, a gear, snaps out of literary interview mode and starts talking about the vicissitudes of a writer's life; "Ive been broke almost all the time. Everybody thinks I'm this succesful Hollywood screenwriter now, but that's not even true. Most of it goes on the enormous expense I have for alimony and child support - 2,000 dollars a month is a tremendous sum for me. It's one of life's little ironies that as soon as I get into a position where I'm going to be financially secure for the first time in my life, that doesn't even last a moment... that marriage broke up two weeks before I had to go and work on the script for Dancing Bear..."


"...I'm a much different person now. I've lived alone for four years and I'm much more careful about, you know, who I fall in love with, and what living arrangements I have. I have more energy and have survived more things than most people, and because of that I've done too many things without thinking of the consequences. I've now learnt the consequences, to say the least. So I'm no longer engaged in domestic disasters. It might make me a better writer, it might make me a worse writer, it might make it impossible for me to write, but, whatever, I'm fairly content with my life, I've lived in this house longer than any house since I got out of high school. This is the longest I've gotten to live in Missoula at one stretch. I always come back here, but always before I've gotten broke and had to go away."


Not that being broke has simply been part of Crumley's adult life. Given his background his career is practically the American Dram in action. Like CW Sughrue Crumley's origins are in Texas dirt poverty of a kind few conteporary American writers have experienced. "Oh, yeah, says Crumley, only half-joking, "the only writer in America who is as down home as me is Harry Crews. I grew up out in the country in South Texas. My only sibling was ten years younger than me. My father worked in the oilfields, my mother was a waitress. I was lucky, during the war, to live in New Mexico so I grew up with Mexican Americans and I didn't have that Texas prejudice when I moved back there. I grew up wearing chickenfeed shirts to school and the only reason I had shoes was because my mother always insisted I wear shoes. I'd hide them under the cattleguard before I'd catch the bus and I'd go to school barefoot. We were country people. My mother wouldn't go to church, she sort of insisted I belong to a church and she would take me to Sunday School, and then she would come and pick me up, but she wouldn't go into the church because she felt that people might make fun of her. This was in a town where the richest people who belonged to the Baptist church made 3,000 dollars, maybe! Her father was in prison, my father never finished high school..."


It would be a mistake, too, to see this poverty as in some way romantic. As Crumley observes; "south Texas has certainly lots of charm, but it was never a place I was very happy. It's a place I was aleways uncomfortable about going back to. Over the last few years I've felt somewhat more comfortable. The part of south Texas I grew up in is different from Texas and different from Mexico. When I was growing up there my home town was 65% Chicano yet it was ruled by the Anglos, I found it to be a really repressive and uncomfortable place, also the wind blows all the time and it's unbearable hot in the summertime... It took me coming to terms with south Texas, finding things that I honestly like, to write about it."


Crumley got out of South Texas by the claasic route, working hard and going to college, "I got a scholarship to Georgia Tech when I got out of high school. At the time, in the 50s, engineering was going to be the big thing, and I did well in physics. Plus south Texas is tremendously anti-intellectual, nobody reads much, so reading gets to be a secret habit like masturbation. Nobody ever told me what to read, I taught myself, so I had a very odd education, I didn't read the books that influenced me until I was in my mid-twenties. So I went off to be an engineer, but I didn't like Georgia much and I clearly didn't want to be an engineer, and after a year I hitch-hiked back to Texas and joined the army."


"I had a good time in the army but I didn't do well. I was always in trouble. I had the chance to spend a year and a half in the Phillipines, ten days in Hong Kong, saw some parts of the country I wouldn't have seen otherwise. I also got busted twice, spent some time in the stockade. I hit a cook one night, he was being snotty to me, army cooks are traditionally snots, I knocked the snot out of this guy. Then I got busted again when I was playing baseball with the base team and we were smuggling cigarettes and Dewar's White Label scotch and stuff like that to sell on the black market. The major who sat at my court martial had moved his entire household full of new appliances from the States, had the army move them for him, had showed a month early to be sure he couldn't have a house on base, got a house off base. One night when he was conveniently drunk at the officer's club, the entire contents of the house and a new Cadillac were stolen. He made about 30,000 dollars on that deal, the most I ever made was about 300. I didn't feel that the black market was a major crime as long as you weren't dealing with medical supplies or weapons. There was a basic problem in the Phillipines - we had things they wanted and they were figuring out ways to get them."


It was only after coming out of the army that Crumley started to make some moves towards becoming a writer; "I didn't know what was going to happen to me till I was 22/23 and I started writing a story. In the real, autobiographical story my father put a sledgehammer through the top of a mudpump in the oilfield, but as I was writing, and I remember the moment exactly, in the story the father picks up the sledgehammer and instead of hitting the mudpump he hits the son in the head and didn't kill him but made him into the kind of son his mother actually wanted. Now, my father had only spanked me twice, he'd never hit me or anything, this was nothing out of my past, but it was then I realised 'Jeez, you can write about stuff that didn't happen'. It was then that I realised I was a writer and not some kid looking for... dust."


After leaving college Crumley worked for a while before, aged 25, sending a story to the University of Iowa and being accepted on to the justly celebrated writers workshop there. Amongst the writers teaching there were Kurt Vonnegut and the great Chicago novelist Nelson Algren, "he never taught me but I played poker with hin a time or two", says Crumley. More directly influential on his writing though, was the presence of RV Cassill, a prolific writer of pulp novels for the likes of Gold Medal books and a seminal critic, one of the very few American critics to realise at the time the value of 5os pulp writers like Jim Thompson and David Goodis. It was Cassill who introduced Crumley to the greats of American crime writing and to the idea that they might be taken seriously.


At Iowa Crunley began writng his first novel, One To Count Cadence, a book which drew on Crumley's army experience, and stands up now as a remarkably mature and considered novel about the realities of war. However it alienated critics at the time by refusing to propagandise for either left or right. It did well enough though for a first novel, it sold to paperback and was bought for the movies, suddenly and temporarily shifting Crunley in to an unsuspected tax bracket. But its aftermath left Crumley with enough problems of one kind or another for it to take six and a half years for the next book to appear. Crumley chuckles sardonically going on bitterly when I ask him what took so long:


"That might have had something to do with three different teaching jobs, two divorces, the adoption of my three older children and, back of the row, 800 pages of a novel called The Muddy Fork, which I later destroyed. A lot of it was education, I wrote that first novel without really knowing what I was doing. You never get to do that again. Once I knew what I was doing then it became more difficult. I think some of it too, had to do with the reaction I had from reviewers. As with most first novels it was soundly ignored, those who did take time to review it, with a few notable exceptions, took sides - it came out while the war was still going on - it wasn't anti-war enough to suit the left and it wasn't pro-war enough to suit the right. It was ambiguous, which was maybe necessary. I'm not sure what it would be like if I wrote it now; it might be somewhat more anti-war, anti-military; more compassionate of the Vietnamese people and also less forgiving of them. A lot of people hated that book when it came out. I had put everything I had into that book and it looked like it might sell some copies, it sold to the movies... then all of that fell apart. The producer ended up not paying me a third of the money. That caused me a great deal of trouble, cost me a house, a couple of cars, and sent me back to teaching."


The key problem in Crumley's career, though, seems to have been the pressure of literature, the desire to do something truly epic and great, a desire strong enough to lead him to burn far more work than he has ever published, and a desire that must have made him hell to live with. The complexity of Crumley's domestic arrangemnts at this time make it amazing that he ver wrote anything at all; "My first marriage broke up two days after I finished the first book. I married again a year or so after that. It broke up four years later, and then I was living with a woman in Colorado when I was writing the Wrong Case and then that broke up. By the time The Wrong Case came out I was married a third time. As happens when you're young, you don't understand the emotional energy that goes into things like that. It seems like it might be civilised but it takes more time than you realise. It made it difficult to write. I finished Cadence here, moved to Arkansas, moved back here, moved to Colorado, moved to Seattle, moved back to Colorado and moved to Texas before the Wrong Case came out."


The Wrong Case was Crumley's first detective novel. It was intended as a one off, a way to cure his writer's block and make some money at the same time. "It was something I started when I realised I was going to quit teaching at Colorado. It seemed quite quick and easy to do." It introduced  into Crumley's fiction both the town of Missoula, disguised as Meriwether, and the charcter of broke-down private eye Milo Milodragovitch, the alcoholic scion of one of the town's founding families. Milo will be rich when he reaches the age of 52, that's when he comes into his father's leagcy. Meanwhile he's been scraping a living doing divorce work and destroying his self-respect. But, as The Wrong Case opens, the divorce laws have been liberalised and he's contemplating ruin from the vantage point of the bottom of a bottle. Milo is a man much taken advantage of; in both books he appears in, The Wrong Case and Dancing Bear, he is set up to be the patsy, never sees the big picture till the end. But his progress is an effective illustration of the maxim that you can't con an honest man, even if he is behind the game by enough coke and booze to stop a regiment.


Milo is also the character closest to Crumley's heart; "He comes from the good side of my unconscious, at the worst moments of my life I think 'I can't be a horrible person because I invented Milo'. He takes care of things, he takes care of all the drunks in the town, he's kind of a saint. None of Milo's background is mine. but I'm sure it's somehow connected metaphorically, in the search for the lost father. When we came back from the war my father was off working all the time in the oilfield and I never saw much of him. He was a very quiet gentle man and my mother was a very forceful violent woman so I got an atypical American upbringing. I'm sure the things I write about Milo and his father, or Sughrue and his father, come out of my feeling when my father died 13 years ago. But," he hastens to add, "none of the experiences are mine, I'm a writer not an autobiographer"


I comment on the disparity between Milo's social origins and Crumley's, to which he replies; "The rich and the poor have more in common than the middle class. That's one of the funny things in the Kinsey Report. About the only people who were engaging in oral sex, or at least admitting it, were the highest income groups and the lowest. My friends say that Milo's the character that reminds them most of me. Whether in his goodheartedness or his self-destruction I don't ask!"


The Wrong Case wasn't a one-off, both the novels Crumley has written since have been crime novels, more or less, but it has only been lately that he has stopped regarding them as a waste of his potential. The book he's currently working on is another version of The Muddy Fork, one that will have some kind of crime format. "I'm trying to do a new book, an even less traditional detective novel than anything else I've done. It's more of a family novel, in the Faulkner sense rather than the domestic sense, narratted by the Sughrue character."


This latest version of the south Texas novel Crumley has been trying to write since the early 70s stems from his discovery of an attempt he made at writing it in thriller form in the late 70s, right after The Last Good Kiss; "I discovered the opening 50 odd pages by accident, didn't even know I had it, because I had burnt or thrown away most things. On rereading it I discovered I couldn't see why I stopped, so I went back to it. I suppose, at the time, because of a certain feeling that you get sometimes in academic circles that detective novels are a lesser form, I felt like I was giving this novel short shrift by using it as a detective novel. I no longer feel that way. I no longer not only do not have the notion that the serious novel is more important than the detective novel, I can't remember why I ever had that notion. Must have been crazed, ignorant or stupid to have fallen prey to the cheapest kind of intellectual snobbery."


Now Crumley has come round to the view that the detective novel has a particular usefulness in dissecting modern-day America; "You can do what you want in a detective novel as long as its entertaining and interesting, I've never been much interested in traditional crime, solving a mystery, Ita a nice literary conceit, but most crimes are solved because somebody rolls over, somebody grasses. Its like the courtroom novel, most things never reach the courtroom, way less than a third of crimes are ever solved and, of those that are, more than half are plea-bargained."


"The real criminal thing that happens in The Wrong Case is simply a personal failure. In The Last Good Kiss I think the real crime is a sort of literary arrogance on the part of the Trahearne character. The there are other kinds of crimes in Dancing Bear; the dispersal of Toxic waste across an entire countryside, for instance. There are other things; international arm-dealer cartels, the sort of casualness with which greed seems to rule things out there, but I've been out of politics too long to feel qualified..."


Qualified or not, Crumley is always keen to talk politics and his books, while scarcely overt revolutionary texts, have politics as a continual subtext. Crumley, like his characters and like the people he hangs out with, is a man who was changed forever by the political upheavals of the 60s, and, while he may be disillusioned, he is certainly no born-again Republican. Crumley's 60s did not begin with the hippie period either, but came out of the militancy of the civil rights period and the attraction of the proto-hippy beat lifestyle centred around San Francisco in the late 50s, which Crumley came into contact with while waiting to be shipped out to the Phillipines; "I was in San Francisco waiting to go overseas in 1958. Had I had a little more control over my life I would have stayed there when I came back from the Phillipines. But I had to go back to Texas for six months. Then I got engaged to a woman there, went to college there, played football for the college as a linebacker... Also there was a kind of prejudice against California, full of kooks and nuts and freaks. So while the 60s were going on I had long hair and I did a lot of drugs, but I didn't identify with the movement in any great way. In my most political days when I was in the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), what I liked best about it was that middle class kids discovered how the police had been treating blacks and Chicanos and poor people all the time. Suddenly middle class white kids from Evanston Illinois were getting their heads busted. I think it changed the way America looks at itself. It was a good time, it was a revolution that failed but made some significant changes."


As the '60s wore on, though, the pitch of Crumley's political involvement slackened, "I was ready for revolution at the point of a gun then I realised I didn't want to kill anybody. It took the edge off my politics and I backed away somewhere in the early 70s. I stayed active in the Vietnam veterans against the war. I donate money for environmental things, I try to save what's left of the west, Mostly its money and time whereas in the 60s it was passion. I'm not sure which is better. Once you discover that you're not going to blow shit up...."


And a degree of scepticism as to the usefulness of much of the 60s idealism crept in, a suspicion that much of it boiled down to rhetoric and posturing, summed up today by the way in which Kennedy's memory is revered as a secular saint, while Lyndon Johnson is firmly consigned to the dustbin of history by both left and right; "I never much admired public figures. By the time Kennedy was president I knew enough about history to know he came from the most corrupt political machine anywhere in the world and I knew what kind of guy he was. He thought he was untouchable, he could fuck any woman he wanted to, nobody would say anything about it. I don't think he had any ideals at all. Lyndon Johnson was someone who grew up in the same town my parents did. I liked Lyndon's programmes and ideas but he was the kind of guy who would sell you a pair of socks and there'd only be one sock in the package. But every now and then I try and remind myself that we got Lyndon Johnson not to run again and what we really did was to elect Nixon. Being right is not always the best thing there is, being thoughtful and kind is more important than being right."


The interview is winding up now, as ever it dgenerates into both of us coming out with political commonplaces and the kind of literary conversation that tends to run along the lines of 'Have you read so-and-so?','No', 'Oh, well, they're good'. Then Crumley tells me that he's recently read a thriller put out by a feminist publishing house and he's looking to pick up an option on it and, together with his girlfriend, work it up into a script, see if he has better luck getting someone else's book made. By now he's cheered up somewhat, and feels like summing things up; "Its nice now, I'm 49, to feel its O.K. to be an outsider, all through my youth I always wanted to belong. I was a juvenile delinquent, a football player, I was on the student council, I was on the yearbook staff, I was in the army, I went to a good college on a scholarship. I went back to college on a football scholarship, I played everything but quarter back, mostly I was a linebacker. I grew up learning to run into people at high speeds. I only quit playing flag football, which is a version without pads, when I was 37.. I broke my nose the last time and I stick to softball these days".


On which note we walk ouside to inspect the damage I'd done to the rental car the night before. Which provokes, one more time, the James Crumley laugh.