Friday, January 8, 2010

The Last Good Kiss

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley, 1978.

This is a difficult work to review. Partly because I don't read many mysteries, and have distinct worry of missing large parts of the intent and style. It'd be like having read a few science fiction works and then reviewing another, mentioning I liked the language and characters but the story just got ridiculous and unbelievable when the aliens showed up, and why did they need timetravel anyway? That is of course how a lot of mainstream commentators review anything SF/F (particularly through assuming that the whole endeavor is just juvenile escapism) and I'm wary of making a similar error across here. For instance, while I found a lot of what happened arbitrary and unbelievable from the setup of the book, that could be as much to not being as familiar with the genre elements Crumley is incorporating or subverting.

Furthermore, and possibly due to the above, I didn't really find this a good novel. I can't say it's bad, but it seemed incomplete or off-center in some ways, which doesn't give me the strong unifying focus I'd have to rant in either praising or condemning it. The Last Good Kiss is quite effective on the level of direct writing, the prose is decent, the dialog snappy, the pace on paragraph to paragraph basis good. It's the larger picture the novel paints (or buys into) that's less satisfying.

The best and worst thing in this novel is how 70s it is, reflecting both intense sexuality, intrigue and political radicalism, as well as a partial blowback against these. So, the protagonist gets eventually sidetracked into following the trail of a ten-years-missing young woman, tracking her past through porn, drug addiction, a hippie commune, and then reinvention of herself into a respectable and settled wife. It's an overview that plays at times like a metaphor for the country as a whole in the previous decade. Certainly in the trail of this, the protagonist has a lot of interesting encounters that deal heavily with the impact of "the Dream" in its late 60s manifestation, its major collapse, and how people left around after the end relate. It's the most productive part of the book, but it also forces the story into a few contrivances--is it really likely one person would have such a symbolically important set of roles? This could work in a lot of senses, but the reason it doesn't fully here is the gritty and near-realistic tone of the work undercut it's larger importance.

The major plot elements make sense in retrospect, the pieces of the backstory fit the described narrative. Unfortunately there's a cost to this coherence, as it forces levels of rediscovery of the small cast, showing hidden identities and covert manipulations. It was engaging to read through, but also distanced me a lot from most of the people in this novel, and in retrospect I find it a fairly alienating tactic. The work isn't atmospherically paranoid enough to support this type of deception, and by the end several many characters were left too ambivalent for real connection.

Where the book really loses me is in the end, with a bit of an improbable coincidence forcing an action-packed rescue against the local mob. It's too neat by far, too succesfull to really be believed, and in the process the book doesn't really deal with the full impact of the abuse (particularly in the sexual form against woman) that's inherent to the setup. This aspect was a factor across the work, but it became most prominent just at the moment of ostensibly the greatest narrative intensity, and left me rather cold. Still, there's a lot to like in here, and as an exploration of a largely unfamiliar genre was probably worth its own sake.

This book reminded me of and was better than: Agatha Cristie's Murder on the Orient Express
This book reminded me of and was worse than: Stephen King's The Dead Zone

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