Andrew Taylor

The play of patterns

Labels mislead. In the taxonomy of literature, both James Sallis and Agatha Christie are often described as crime writers.

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).

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.

Or

Unlock more articles

REGISTER

Comments

Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in