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Essay Reviews The MuddyFork & Other Things. ByJames Crumley. (Livingston, Montana: Clark City Press, 1991. 244 pages, $12.95.) Five years ago, many would have greeted the news thatJames Crumley had published another book with warm, if not fervent, anticipation. Among the numerous epigones of Hammett and Chandler, none since Ross Macdonald seemed, in the opinion of some knowledgeable readers, to display purer ability and strength. Indeed, five years ago,James Crumley seemed supremely poised to take the hard-boiled detective genre single-handedly into new terrain. He had created a new Yoknapatawpha in Montana, and peopled it with characters who caromed across a ravaged natural and psychic landscape, fleeing the furies unleashed in the steaming debris of post-Vietnam, post-sixties America. Crumley had a large and classic vision. He used the genre in a fascinating way to exorcise personal and cultural demons and to map the troubled geography of the heart. His ambition seemed great, his talent olympian, and he had a swelling cadre of appreciative readers. At his best, as in The Last Good Kiss, Dancing Bear, and “Whores,”he wrote not so much as a slumming but as a strung-out angel. Crumley’s gift with genre, which only his masterly forebears shared, was the ability to control and exploit the brutish ideology at its core through a complex, essentially virile sensibility perhaps best described by Raymond Chandler, under the influence ofJoseph Shaw, as the “cool spirit of detachment.” His prose was sweet and tragic, and often soared with a lyrical, colloquial ferocity few poets could ever equal. His work demonstrated a level of increasing complexity, subtlety, and seriousness rarely encountered anywhere in the form. The critics, however, who were not above praising Elmore Leonard’s com­ mand of vernacular or Robert B. Parker’s wise-guy wit, were stubbornly unreceptive to his more ambitious aims. The pseudonymous Newgate Callendar concluded an early, brief review of The Wrong Caseby remarking that “Crumley has the general idea, but his technique needs refining; and while he handles the situations well enough, a cliché is still a cliché.”Jim Mele,writing in the October 1979 issue of TheAmerican BookReview, noted that Crumley’s style was “right on the hard boiled money,”butfaulted TheLast GoodKissfor being “aimless instead of driven.” Only David Lehman, in a whirlwind survey of “the booming world of mystery and crime”for the April 22, 1985, issue of Newsweek, parted from the general disdain by benignly banishing Crumley to the hinterlands of crime. He ventured cautiously, however, contending only that Crumley “may be the best regionalist going.”Lehman, who was later to gain some notoriety himself at the expense of Paul de Man, described Crumley’s “antihero,”Milo Milodragovich, as having “wandered into the thriller world from aJack Kerouac pipe dream.” This, no doubt, was intended as some subterranean form of praise. In spite of the general critical neglect, Crumley’s audience never deserted him. His novels quickly became fixtures in the prestigious Vintage Contempo­ raries series. They remained in print long after contemporaneous works had been consigned to remainder tables. Of course, such loyalty to writers is not always based on rational grounds, but five years ago Crumley’s career seemed established, and any reasonable person would indeed have been justified in expecting great things from TheMuddyFork isf Other Things. But, as Milo himself might have said, reason has nothing to do with it. True, there had been sufficient warnings that things were not progressing smoothly. After publishing Dancing Bear in 1983, he seemed to have stopped producing anything new. New tides kept appearing, but they lacked the scale and stature of his novels. In 1984 Lord John Press of Northridge, California became the first small publisher to issue his work in an edition intended principally for collectors. This was ‘The Muddy Fork,”a chapter or montage of episodes from a roman a clefCrumley had been working on fitfully since about 1969. He tells us here that he put it together in order to get a grant: “Ididn’tget the grant, haven’t finished the novel, but haven’t given up.” Maurice Neville, a rare book dealer in Santa Barbara, followed in 1987 with the publication of...


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