Labels mislead. In the taxonomy of literature, both James Sallis and Agatha Christie are often described as crime writers. True, they have in common the fact that their stories tend to include the occasional murder, but there the resemblance ends. Sallis’s outlook is closer to that of Samuel Beckett, whom he cites as one of his influences; and his characters are more Pozzo than Poirot.
Sallis’s novels have gradually attracted a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic; No Exit Press, a small British publisher, has resolutely championed his work for the last 15 years. Now there are signs that his books may at last reach the wider audience they so richly deserve. One novel, Drive, has been adapted into a film starring Ryan Gosling, who plays an unnamed Hollywood stuntman with a hazardous second career as a getaway driver: think Steve McQueen takes a walk on the Noir side. The film came out in September, having already gained its director, Nicholas Winding Refn, the best director award at the Cannes Festival.
Sallis came to crime writing (labels may mislead but they are undoubtedly convenient) by a circuitous route. As a young man, he spent a good deal of time in England at the invitation of Michael Moorcock, who asked him to become the fiction editor of the science fiction magazine, New Worlds. During his time there, the magazine became increasingly experimental and literary, before lurching into bankruptcy.
He began writing, too — surreal, intense short stories. He became something of a linguist: he has published translations from French, Russian and Polish poetry. He is himself a poet, as well as an expert on blues and jazz who has written extensively about music.
Resolutely uncommercial, Sallis has long been a champion of pulp fiction and of authors such as Jim Thomson and Chester Himes (whose biography he has written). With hindsight, at least, it seems almost inevitable that he should have tried his hand at crime fiction.
Until the success of Drive, Sallis was probably best known for his series featuring Lew Griffin, a black novelist, poet and investigator. The first of these books, The Long-Legged Fly, came out in 1992. So far there have been six novels, each of them with an insect in its title. Another series began in 2003 with Cypress Grove. The central character, Turner, is a former cop, a former convict and a former therapist.
These novels have their share of violence, but they are not plot-driven in the usual sense of the term. The conventional structures of pulp fiction serve as containers for bleak commentaries about human existence and fallibility, written in delicate language that is sometimes closer to poetry than prose.
Sallis has also published a number of stand-alone novels — including his latest, The Killer is Dying, which its British publisher has cannily brought out to coincide with the launch of Drive as a film. It’s set in Phoenix, Arizona, ‘the fifth or sixth largest city in the country’, a sprawling, shapeless conurbation.
The narrative moves between three unconnected lives that brush up against each other rather than intersect. Christian is the eponymous contract killer — a modern pilgrim, perhaps, on a modern progress. He’s dying, and this is his final job. As the novel opens he identifies his target, only to find that someone else has tried to kill the victim first.
The detective is Sayles, a weary police officer whose wife is dying of cancer. His investigation into the botched hit links him with Christian. Finally there’s Jimmie, a young teenager abandoned by his parents, who lives a secret life in the family’s suburban home, trading on eBay to pay the household bills. He’s having bad dreams in which he taps into someone else’s memories. Only the reader knows that the dreams belong to Christian.
This isn’t comfort reading in any respect. Sallis makes us work. His dislocated narrative passes through unexpected shifts. Viewpoints are difficult to pin down. The language constantly demands close attention. In most thrillers, the plot is the central feature of the book. Here it is merely one element among many. The characters slip through time into their memories; they muse on their grimly mortal condition; but they are also capable of appreciating kindness and integrity when they encounter them.
If the novel has a theme, it is that patterns matter. As Christian realises, ‘What people often mistook in him for intelligence was primarily an awareness of patterns and correspondences.’
The detective is aware of patterns, too, and they underpin what another sort of crime writer might call the denouement.
To my mind, Sallis is a wonderful writer, dark, lyrical and compelling. You will either love or loathe The Killer Is Dying. But it’s certainly worth reading it to find out.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 8, 2011