Madeleines: The Last Good Kiss By James Crumley

The Madeleine Notion

madelIn Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s – well, Proust’s remembrance of things past is triggered by a madeleine cake (a small, rich cookie-like pastry) or as Proust writes,

And suddenly the memory revealed itself: The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.

Proust thus transcends time barriers to experience the past simultaneously with the present.

On occasion, I find nuggets in books, music, videos, TV, or theater that perform a comparable kind of magic, revealing something beyond their own content. On that slender and admittedly precarious link to Proust and his cookie, I offer these morsels: quotations, pertinent points, overviews, images, themes, and other tidbits that seem similarly catalytic.

Madeleines: The Last Good Kiss

The Last Good Kiss700
James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss1 is, it seems, ubiquitously known as a “hard-boiled detective novel”2 written in the style of Raymond Chandler. It has provoked an impressively wide variety of reviews that range from “best detective novel ever written” to “overrated stoner noir,” but has been championed and beloved by many other crime authors, including Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly.

My own, tempered recommendation is that readers who get off on gritty, quirky stories featuring hard-drinking, brittle anti-heroes (the hero is an Viet Nam vet turned private investigator who works between cases at a topless bar in Montana) will love this book. Of course, all those folks know about The Last Good Kiss and read it 20 years ago.

Two Special Lines

While the first line is not the focus of this post, it is altogether striking and demands at least this acknowledgment.

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonora, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

Later, this wondrous sentence appears:

Then he told me about naked women and sunlight. And that he was a bastard.

Is that great or what?

The Madeleine Therein

The madeleine is the book’s inscription, a poem fragment consisting of the first 2½ lines from Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg by Richard Hugo. The entire poem, which can be found at the end of this post, is worth reading.

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago.

There is nothing mysterious about why I’m moved by these words.

I believe, after all, that kisses are terribly important — as emblems of love, as agents of lust, as lips touching lips, and as markers of connections, events, and time.

And I believe that loneliness is devastating.

And I believe that heroics are routinely required of thoughtful men and women everyday to recognize and confront the irrationality and randomness of life.

A Lagniappe

I had assumed that Crumley had, one way or another, come across Hugo’s well-anthologized poem, used it as an inscription, and that was that. Recently, however, I serendipitously discovered that the Crumley-Hugo connection was a personal one. Crumley was struggling to write what would become The Last Good Kiss when Richard Hugo, who had moved to Missoula, Montana a year before Crumley arrived there, introduced him to the crime novels of Raymond Chandler. Some, in fact, maintain that a character in the book, Abraham Trahearne, is based on Hugo. This is important to know because … well, I guess if you ever run into an admirer of hard-boiled detective fiction, you would have something clever to add to the conversation.

Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down, The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bell repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs–
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t finally fall down.

Isn’t this your life? The ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

Credit Due Department: Madeleine photo by Bernard Leprêtre (Own work) CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikipedia

Note: Originally posted May 29, 2006 at, a predecessor of

  1. Vintage: November 5, 1988 []
  2. Are there “over easy” or “sunny side up” detective novels? []

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