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James Crumley1939 - 2008
James Crumley1939 - 2008

MISSOULA - Jim Crumley has gone away. Loved by people all over the world for his great novels and huge heart, he died Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008, in Missoula, at the age of 68, after struggling for months with poor health. He is survived by his beloved wife of 16 years, Martha Elizabeth, who stood by him through thick and thin, and through sickness and health; his loving children, Conor, Kyle ("Chris"), David, Mary and Elizabeth; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; his brother, John, and his loyal friends, too numerous to name - but they know who they are.

Jim Crumley was born in Three Rivers, Texas, on Oct. 12, 1939, to Arthur Roland ("Shorty") and Ruby Jewel Crumley when the Depression cast a cold shadow on American families. Shorty was a roughneck and Ruby Jewel was a waitress, and Jim Crumley grew up, along with his brother Johnny, in a little town called Mathis outside of Corpus Christi.

A straight A student in high school, Crumley went on to Georgia Tech, but soon left to join the Army. After a tour in Southeast Asia, he enrolled at Texas A&M on a football scholarship, earned a B.A. in history in 1964, and continued on to the esteemed Iowa Writer's Workshop where he earned an MFA. He then joined the English department at the University of Montana in Missoula, and published his first novel, "One to Count Cadence" in 1969, a critically acclaimed work about the war in Vietnam. Vietnam vets everywhere so closely identified with the characters Crumley created that they made him one of their own, even though he never actually served in Vietnam. Crumley was also faculty adviser to the campus group Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

In Missoula, the poet Richard Hugo pointed him to the work of Raymond Chandler. Later, when in Mexico, Crumley walked into a grocery store and was attracted to a bookshelf of art deco covers - American editions of the detective stories of Raymond Chandler. He bought them all, a purchase that changed his life and led to the transformation of an American writing genre.

In 1974, he published "The Wrong Case," the first in a series of crime novels in which character and language held dominance over plot, which before had dominated most detective books. Crumley remapped the geography of the crime novel, transporting his stories from drawing rooms and cities onto the roads and back streets of the West, with characters on the fringe of American life: bikers, whores, and convicts, and malcontents and outcasts in second-rate motels in shabby little bars, caught up in hopeless shady deals, conflicted in their hearts. But, the quality of Crumley's writing transported the crime novel into the realm of fine literature. The opening lines of "The Last Good Kiss" (1978) are considered a classic: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonora, California, drinking the heart out of a fine spring afternoon."

Crumley wrote several more critically acclaimed novels including "Dancing Bear," 1983, "The Mexican Tree Duck," 1993, "Bordersnakes," 1996 (which won the Dashiell Hammett award), "Final Country," 2001, and "The Right Madness," 2005. In his novels, Crumley alternated between two signature detectives: C.W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch. Sughrue was a take-no-prisoner Vietnam vet, a redneck detective who, in his own words, was "… a fistful of random trouble … ." Milo was a veteran of the Korean War, also a handful of trouble in his own way, but much more the gentleman.

"I've often thought most of my fans were in jail, or should be … on the lam or in the slam," Crumley once said, but he was admired and read internationally by men and women alike, for both the beauty of his language and the breadth of his vision. Jim Crumley also worked on screenplays, was a member of the Writer's Guild of America, and published essays and short fiction, collected in "Whores" in 1988, and "The Muddy Fork & Other Things" in 1991.

His friendships brightened the lives of countless people from all walks of life. The unofficial mayor of Missoula, with his office a bar stool downtown, he would always take your meeting be you student, cop, professor or construction worker. You could find him at Charlie B's or at the Depot on the chair at the end of the bar, often talking to William Kittredge, his writer pal of 40 years.

"I was truly born at the wrong time, conceived in a tent, raised in a shack, and brother, look at me now," Crumley wrote to his friend Michael Koepf last year. "Stay the hell out of dangerous places, old man, so we can at least have one more drink."

Jim Crumley has gone away. But Jim Crumley will always be with us. Those who don't believe this never knew him or read his words.

Cremation has taken place. Following his wishes, a formal memorial service will not be held. However, a gathering to celebrate his birthday is being planned for Oct. 12, and a memorial bash will be announced at a later date.

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