Crumley hits a series of notes that another virtuoso of the hangdog-noir style had sounded a quarter-century earlier. The Last Good Kiss, like The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece from 1953—note the valedictory wistfulness in both titles—builds an array of cockeyed triangles around an alcoholic writer, a woman who seeks to “rescue” him, and a melancholy private eye who signs on to assist in that project. Yet Crumley also charts new territory for the hard-boiled genre.
Part of what’s new, in fact, is actual territory: C.W. Sughrue, part-time detective to the degenerate wealthy, part-time bartender to the degenerate poor, calls Montana home. For him, dirt roads and an endless ream of black highway replace the mean streets of urban noir. Instead of clipped wisecracking, he offers parched country wit, too dry even to be called sardonic. Sughrue, moreover, is distinctly a man of his moment, the tail end of the burned-out 1970s, a time when bitter memories of the Vietnam War and the acrid odor of the ’60s counterculture still hung low and thick over the land. Across that land, from Montana to Colorado and Oregon and other points west, Sughrue drives an El Camino pickup—a halfling monstrosity, neither quite a truck nor quite a car, and a fitting emblem for a period when no one seemed to know which shape to take.
In its plotting, too, Sughrue’s adventure departs from its model. Where Chandler always scored his work with a regular drumbeat of killings, Crumley inserts a murder only in the final movement of his story. A pure quest narrative for much of its length, the novel mainly follows Sughrue’s search for the long-lost daughter of a woman who runs a watering hole in Sonoma, California—the spot where Sughrue, early on, tracks down that booze-hound writer. (Confusing? This tale does have the antic complexity of a Chandler novel, making it similarly hard to summarize.) The daughter had disappeared a decade earlier, first into a commune, then into the porn industry, and then presumably into some other false utopia.
Even after the hero locates this damsel, she faces threats from a boorish ogre and a cruel, jealous crone. But who’s the ogre, and who’s the crone? Sughrue, on his Interstate odyssey, encounters multiple candidates for both roles.