In Praise of James Sallis

In the past six months I’ve been reading more crime fiction than usual—whereas such books had been about 20 percent of my reading diet over the years, it’s now at 50 percent and creeping higher. Ever since becoming a mystery writer in June (I honestly thought I had written a book in which a murder was solved, it took a publisher to tell me it was a mystery), I figured it was time to become more completely read in the genre.

While I already had my faves—Patricia Highsmith and Donald Westlake, to name a couple—I had plenty of crime-fiction blanks to fill in. In recent months I have read, for the first time, titans such as James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Reginald Hill, and Ruth Rendell. I expect I’ll be reading more titles from all of these writers, with the exception of James Ellroy, whose staccato style just isn’t my thing.

But the favorite discovery of my survey thus far is a name I had never heard of: James Sallis.

I came across Sallis’s name accidentally, while running a search for the best books of Scottish author Val McDermid (whose A Place of Execution is a tremendous page-turner). Google led me to a story in which McDermid named her favorites in crime fiction. Her top five included Sallis, whom she called, “the great secret of American fiction.” She praised him for “fascinating, damaged characters, atmospheric settings, spare storytelling and beautiful prose.”

Val had me at “damaged characters.”

I found Sallis’ book Moth at the local bookseller, and I am glad I did, for I have never read anything like it.

The book’s cover touts Moth as “a New Orleans mystery,” and the New Orleans part is fair enough, even though the story heads off to Mississippi for a while. But the plot of the “mystery” could be fairly summed up as: the main character searches for a missing woman, asks around for her and, about two-thirds of the way through the book, he finds her. After which more happens, but the mystery is done.

I skipped the “spoiler alert” notice because The Moth has so little to spoil. No reversals, no characters with hidden motives, no surprise killings, none of the typical devices that amp up, or pay off, the narrative tension. But Sallis makes it work, in part because it feels like Sallis isn’t so much upending the expectations of the genre as ignoring them. It if feels good, he does it.

Characters will sit and talk for a while, just to talk. At times the hero, ex-detective turned literature professor Lew Griffin, will make a point about books, or share an idea he has for a story he wants to write, and it feels like Sallis is shucking the “Griffin” guise and speaking directly to the reader. Then he puts on the Griffin guise again and gets back to the story. It’s a funny way of asserting authorial privilege—of saying that I’m the one on stage and I can do whatever I feel like. Trust me to make it worth your while.

And Sallis does, for my money. I wouldn’t want every book that calls itself a mystery to pay as little regard to structure as Moth does, but it’s fun to see that it can work so well. I’m glad to discover a joy that so many Sallis readers already knew.

As I continue with my crime-fiction survey, I will also be drilling deeper into Sallis. I have the specific title that McDermid actually recommended, What You Have Left: The Turner Trilogy on order.

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