Dennis Lehane is no stranger to the genre of crime fiction, neither as reader nor as writer. The author of numerous novels including "Mystic River" and "Gone, Baby, Gone," Lehane counts among today's most respected crime writers.

When he ponders how he got here, he doesn't hesitate to give credit where credit is due: late Missoula writer James Crumley and his 1978 novel, "The Last Good Kiss."

"It's the book that changed how I looked at American crime fiction, the book that said, you should try to do this," Lehane said Thursday afternoon.

Lehane was one of five authors assembled at Missoula's Wilma Theatre for a panel discussion - part homage, part celebration, part critique - of Crumley in general and "The Last Good Kiss" in particular. The event, which drew approximately 125 fellow writers, friends and fans of Crumley, kicked off the first full day of events at the 10th annual Montana Festival of the Book.

Crumley was, for years, a regular fixture at the festival. When he passed away last autumn, just days before the 2008 festival, organizers had little time to assemble a proper remembrance of the local literary giant.

But as Thursday's panel discussion amply demonstrated, Crumley's towering influence over the modern genre of crime fiction has hardly faded in the intervening year.

" 'The Last Good Kiss' is, hands down and pretty much untouchably, the best American mystery ever written," said Lehane. "I remember I was about 20 (years old) when I read it, and to me, that book had the effect of an earthquake."

Lehane was joined on stage Thursday by fellow authors George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, James Grady and Michael Koepf. Collectively, those authors have accounted for more than 55 novels.

To hear them tell it, Crumley's influence is writ all over those voluminous pages.

"He got a younger generation of crime writers amped up to go back to the desk," said Pelecanos. "I started out like everybody reading (Raymond) Chandler novels, but there was always a point in those books where they shook their heads and said, those kids today. Crumley, the things he was writing about - taking drugs, getting high, driving a car around, getting high, having sex - all these things struck a nerve with us. I knew I couldn't write a Raymond Chandler novel, but this made sense."

Pelecanos was neither the first nor last among Thursday's panelists to mention the name of Chandler, the early 20th century author whose series of crime novels centered around private investigator Philip Marlowe. Chandler's name may be better known among fans of the crime genre, said Lippman, but when held up together, there's no comparison between the two writers.

"Crumley is such a better writer than Chandler," said Lippman.

"When 'The Last Good Kiss' appeared ... American readers and certainly those that were writing crime literature saw that the art form had just been reinvented," agreed Grady.

Grady, who has spent time living in both Washington, D.C., and Montana, said that Crumley arguably even influenced how outsiders view modern-day Montana.

"One of the things Crumley was able to do is he was able to demystify Montana and bring it into a real modern time," he said. "People would say to me, 'I read this guy Crumley and I didn't realize they weren't all ranchers or sheep farmers out there.' The impact of that within the Montana culture is something I hope will continue to reverberate."

Thursday's celebration was not without some soft criticisms of the late writer, who - despite his vast influence on other writers - never had a best-selling novel. Several of the afternoon's panelists noted in particular Crumley's thin plot lines. But, they were quick to note, he more than made up for that shortcoming in the tales he told.

"He wasn't very good at plot. Seriously," said Pelecanos. "You can't be good at everything, and that's not why you read a Crumley novel. It's for the insight into the human condition and the characters."

"It tells you everything - that he wanted to be a poet," added Pelecanos. "Sense of place is amazing in his work, and a sense of these very real people."

Thursday's discussion was the first in a trio of Crumley-themed events scheduled for this year's Montana Festival of the Book. On Friday, at 1 p.m., the Wilma Theatre will host a screening of the 2006 film, "The Far Side of Jericho," which Crumley co-wrote. That will be followed at 3 p.m. by a discussion of Crumley's screenwriting talents, led by director Tim Hunter, writer Roger Hedden, and filmmaker Andrew Smith.

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, jnickell@missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.

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