Behind Crumley’s coyote grin was a man who howled to his own tune

Winding through the Hollywood Hills far too late in the evening after way too much Irish whiskey, Jim Crumley hit the sedan’s brakes and smiled.

A coyote slipped through the iron gate of some multimillion-dollar house, paused to make a cameo appearance in our headlights, then slipped grinning into the shadows.

The population of well-heeled felines and purebred lap dogs was about to be depleted. Crumley grinned a little like that coyote, loving that outlaw imagery as he did. I knew it was a dog after big Jim’s own heart.

I remember that coyote whenever I think of Crumley, the author of boozy, pugnacious crime novels, who died last week in Missoula at age 68 after a lengthy illness. Like his best characters, Crumley had a big heart, hard nose, well-traveled liver and outlaw’s soul.

Tributes to Crumley’s life and literary skill are appearing from Seattle to Paris. Some of my favorite lines come from his obituary in The New York Times, which described Jim as a man “who by all accounts was not entirely averse to drink himself.”

Not entirely averse, indeed.

When I caught up with Crumley years ago, he was holed up at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City rewriting movie scripts and building his bankroll before returning to his home in Missoula, where he was a member of the town’s remarkable community of writers. He picked my brain about a project and treated me to a few days among the Hollywood film crowd. We ate at the Musso & Frank Grill and Dan Tana’s, drank wherever the lamp was lit, and I got the feeling there were worse ways to make a living than whittling scripts in Hollywood.

I also had the pleasure of briefly running with a fun-loving, incredibly generous spirit who just happened to be one of the biggest characters in crime fiction. Crumley’s “The Last Good Kiss” ranks among the best crime novels ever written. His books influenced a generation of crime and mystery novelists, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly among many.

At speaking engagements and book signings, Crumley often would meet fans who would blurt out the memorable first sentence of the novel: “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.”

UNLV English professor and author John Irsfeld knew Crumley before he was a cult figure. “We were happy acquaintances,” Irsfeld says, explaining that he learned much about Crumley’s at times pugnacious personality through their mutual friend, Texas writer Max Crawford. “They had what you’d call a love-hate relationship. They would fight with each other, get drunk together, then go out and do it again.”

Irsfeld, whose latest novel is “Night Moves,” tells the story about the time Crumley was living in Texas and answered his front door to find a visitor whose poor manners irritated the writer. Crumley punched the boorish fellow right through a screen door.

Such stories attached themselves to Crumley’s personal legend. Although the man I met was a gentle guy in love with the poet Martha Elizabeth, Crumley was more comfortable in a biker bar than a college classroom.

“I think he was one of a handful of mystery writers with a literary bent,” says Black Mountain Institute associate director and author Richard Wiley, who met Crumley years ago at the fine but fleeting Culture Dog Bookstore in Henderson. “He was a good writer and a very frank guy, a no B.S. kind of guy.”

Like his best-known characters, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue, Crumley was no stranger to roadside saloons. His novels are riddled with so much booze and drugs that critics have compared him to Hunter S. Thompson.

Irsfeld calls it a generational thing.

“He was born on the cusp of the old way, those guys who were raised up on Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, and the idea that you had to drink and smoke and be a rounder,” he says. “Unfortunately, I think it bit a lot of them.”

Maybe so, but it sure made for a wild ride.

The greatest character Jim Crumley ever created was that elusive literary coyote whose grin was reflected in the back-bar mirror.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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