Published in 1978, The Last Good Kiss is James Crumley's third novel and the first to feature C. W. Sughrue, an alcoholic former army officer who is now a P.I. in the fictional town of Meriwether, Montana. It is generally regarded as Crumley's best novel, and any number of contemporary crime writers have described it as their favorite crime novel of all. The town of Meriwether is based loosely on Missoula, Montana, where Crumley, a Texas native, taught at the University of Montana in the 1960s. He then moved to Missoula permanently in the mid-1980s, and was a larger-than-life-character who was very well-known in the town's seedier bars until his death in 2008.
Crumley's protagonist, C. W., is no Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. He spends most of his professional time repossessing cars and tracking down cheating spouses. When he's not investigating, he can often be found tending bar in a topless joint. As the book opens, Sughrue has been hired to track down a famous writer who has gone off the rails. The writer's ex-wife wants him back at his desk, cranking out his next great novel, and so she sends Sughrue to find him.
Sughrue tracks the guy from Montana to Sonoma, California, where the book opens with what is often described as the best opening line in all of crime fiction: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."
Before Sughrue can get Trahearne out of the bar, a fight breaks out. Trahearne is injured and will have to spend a few days in a hospital before he's fit to travel. Learning that Sughrue is a detective, the woman who owns the ramshackle joint hires him for $87.00 to try to find her daughter who disappeared in San Francisco ten years earlier. Sughrue tells the woman that it's an impossible task but that he will give it a shot while waiting for Trahearne to recover.
The investigation will take Sughrue into some very dark places, often accompanied by Trahearne, as they gradually make their way back to Montana. Once he has deposited the writer with his wife, his ex-wife, and his former mother-in-law (No wonder the guy was on the run, these are some seriously weird relationships...), C. W. continues the investigation. It's an often violent, funny, and tragic booze-driven ride, which ultimately arrives at a stunning climax.
As the first sentence would suggest, Crumley was a seriously good writer, and this is a beautifully-written book, which needs to be read slowly and savored. It's reminiscent of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, and Crumley really is, or deserves to be, remembered with the same respect. For whatever reason, his books were ultimately more successful in Europe and in Japan, at least during his lifetime, than they were in the U.S. Only after his death, did he begin to get the recognition here at home that he certainly deserved, but any fan of hard-boiled crime fiction will definitely want to look for this one.