If Icarus had written crime fiction, after reaching for the heavens and touching the sky, after he crashed and burned and fell back to earth, after he’d experienced the rapture of the ultimate and then knew only the desolation of it being permanently beyond his grasp – if that man Icarus had written crime fiction then surely he’d have given James Crumley a run for his money. But as the ‘hardboiled’ and ‘American noir’ shelves aren’t full of books by Mr Icarus, then there’s few people who come close to Crumley at capturing the essential struggle of the human soul… and cramming it into gripping crime fiction.
This collection of short stories, non-fiction essays, and interview and novel extracts is itself a quarter-century old – and several of the stories in it are even older; Crumley wrote many of them before I was born. Yet they’re every bit as relevant as any contemporary crime stories. Few full-length novels pack the punch of ‘An Ideal Son For The Jenkins Family’, which queasily conveys the irreconcilable situation of a square-peg younger generation that no longer fits into a round-hole conventional family. And just when you think you’ve grasped the generation-gap morality message, Crumley butchers every expectation with unashamed brutality.
Then in ‘Three Cheers For Thomas J Rabb’, Crumley rips into the grim business of parental expectation and how it can warp a child’s character in cataclysmic fashion. You think pushy parents are a 21st century phenomena? This one was written in 1964 and you can still feel young Tom Rabb’s rage boiling off every page.
More recently, sci-fi author Richard Morgan wrote a searing examination of the feminisation of the male (it’s a full-length novel called Black Man / Thirteen, and you should try it) and the constraints of modern society on innate masculinity. 45 years ago, James Crumley nailed this subject in around 5000 words in ‘Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting’. He also tackles stalking, suicide, the power of the passive-aggressive controlling partner (who mentioned The Archers? Hah!), and the crushing, monstrous weight of perceived failure which leaves fragile lives in tatters. Yet not every story ends in bitter disappointment, blood and dead bodies. ‘Cairn’ suggests that contentment can be attained, even if it takes a radical change in direction to get there. Just one of the ‘fictional truths’ didn’t work for me, and it was the only one written from a woman’s perspective. It’s almost reassuring to know that Crumley’s talents weren’t beyond reproach.
These stories are definitely more energetic than his world-weary, cynical later novels. They seethe with suppressed energy and vitality of a younger man who can’t quite believe what he sees around him. All the anger which he would subsequently expand into the Sughrue and Milo novels is condensed here into eight episodes of full-on fury, wielded by a man learning just how much power his words could convey. They might have been penned in the decade after 1964, but these stories feel as fresh as any hard-boiled crime fiction written today.
Almost as a bonus, this anthology also contains half a dozen ‘journalistic lies’ in which Crumley skewers the America he discovers in Houston, on the road, and in the great west. Read them now and observe the eternal truth in plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The interview and excerpts which follow the stories are less interesting and feel like filler – but if you can lay hands on this collection then it’s worth adding to your shelf for the fiction alone.
Few writers capture lightning in a jar: this collection absolutely crackles with the energy it contains.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
‘The Muddy Fork and other things’ is really hard to find these days: grab a copy if you see it.
Or dive in with ‘Bordersnakes’ which unites his two protagonists in a ferocious roadtrip of lawlessness and excess