What is it about California that makes it so attractive to writers of hardboiled fiction? Is it the tension between the gorgeous weather and the darkness of the human soul? Is it the quintessential Land of Opportunity trashed by intimidation and competition? Just as the fertile coast is divided from the desert interior, California divides the survivors from the victims and it takes a brutally clear voice to describe that social Darwinism. James Crumley was such a voice.
That’s not to say that The Last Good Kiss is strictly a California book, because it covers a good bit of the West, carrying the reader on a booze- and speed-filled journey with stops in Sonoma, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Elko, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. In fact, so much time takes place in cars that the two main characters— investigator C. W. Sughrue and his quarry-cum-road partner Abraham Trahearne—come to that place of friendship and hatred that can only be created on road trips through desolate country.
After finding Trahearne on behalf of Trahearne’s wealthy ex-wife, Sughrue accepts a quixotic assignment to find the daughter of the owner of the bar where they meet. For $87, Sughrue agrees to look for Betty Sue Flowers, who disappeared in San Francisco ten years before. Betty Sue is a legend to all who knew her, exuding a premature sexuality that haunted the men and alienated her from the women around her. The trail has all but disappeared, but Sughrue, accompanied by Trahearne, still gives it his best shot and turns up some inconsistencies.
But his first client demands the return of her ex-husband to the compound where she lives with Trahearne, his second wife, and his domineering mother. Back to Montana they go, and Sughrue steps into a snakepit of relationships and barely stifled violence. The ex-wife is sexy, the second wife is interesting, and the booze is free, so Sughrue sticks around until his conscience puts him back on Betty Sue’s trail. And that trail leads to death and destruction for many—some who deserve it and some who don’t.
Like all good hardboiled heroes, C. W. Sughrue is a philosopher (with a Master’s in English Lit) hidden behind a scarred body and bashed-in face, with an incredible tolerance for booze and a certain (though ill-defined) quality that draws beautiful women. He retreats to his Montana home from the ugliness he has seen in his life, but doesn’t hesitate to go out and confront more ugliness. And while he isn’t a romantic, he is just idealistic enough to believe that he can make a difference, even when we, the readers, know he’s heading for another fall.
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