Though I never met James Crumley, in the late 1960s we were both at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop--where being a mystery writer put you pretty far in the back of the bus. Crumley, who died on Sept. 17 at 68, was ahead of me in the program, and I can only wonder if he ran into the same mix of skepticism and condescension toward "popular fiction" that I encountered.
What Crumley represents to me is a seriousness of purpose and an ability rare among the major late 20th century private-eye writers to follow Raymond Chandler's lead without unintentionally parodying him. The tendency of the great P.I. writers who preceded Crumley had been to write about the same couple of big cities. Crumley wrote of the Southwest and inadvertently opened the door to a regionalism that has since exploded in mystery fiction, from Robert B. Parker's Boston to Sara Paretsky's Chicago.
Mickey Spillane and Chandler, however, remain key to understanding Crumley, whose unflinching violence recalls the former and whose tough-guy poetry invokes the latter. A search for redemption in his work links Crumley to Ross Macdonald, but Crumley wrote characters who were more real, sad and believably flawed than any created by his predecessors.
Like Dashiell Hammett, Crumley wrote only a handful of books. But as with Hammett, Crumley's short list seems likely to endure.
Collins is an American mystery writer and the author of the best-selling graphic novel Road to Perdition