Few American writers create more memorable landscapes — both natural and interior — than James Sallis. His highly praised Lew Griffin novels evoked classic New Orleans and the convoluted inner space of his black private detective. More recently — in Cypress Grove and Cripple Creek — he has conjured a small town somewhere near Memphis, where John Turner — ex-policeman, ex-con, war veteran and former therapist — has come to escape his past. But the past proved inescapable; thrust into the role of Deputy Sheriff, Turner finds himself at the centre of his new community, one that, like so many others, is drying up, disappearing before his eyes.
As Salt River begins, two years have passed since Turner's amour, Val Bjorn, was shot as they sat together on the porch of his cabin. Sometimes you just have to see how much music you can make with what you have left, Val had told him, a mantra for picking up the pieces around her death, not sure how much he or the town has left. Then the sheriff's long-lost son comes ploughing down Main Street into City Hall in what appears to be a stolen car. And waiting at Turner's cabin is his good friend, Eldon Brown, Val's banjo on the back of his motorcycle so that it looks as though he has two heads. 'They think I killed someone,' he says. Turner asks: 'Did you?' And Eldon responds: 'I don't know.' Haunted by his own ghosts, Turner nonetheless goes in search of a truth he's not sure he can live with.
James Sallis has been called by critics one of the best writers in America. 'It's a crime that a writer this good isn't better known,' wrote David Montgomery in the Chicago Tribune, while Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times Book Review called his Turner books 'a superior series... a keeper.' Salt River will take his reputation even higher and reach the wider audience he so richly deserves.
'Haunting . . . Sallis writes poetic rings around the subject'
- Marilyn Stasio, New York Times [read the full review]
'Sallis is a gifted polymath: poet, biographer, translator, essayist, musician and prolific (if criminally neglected) novelist. His Turner books are little gems, with their sharp descriptions and melancholy reflections.'
- Adam Woog, Seattle Times [read the full review]
'As we come to expect from Sallis, Salt River is filled with insight, redemption, and tantalizing passages. '
- Woody Haut, Crime Time [read the full review]
'Holds the power of simplicity and the musical ring of truth as only Sallis can deliver it — as he has done bravely, consistently, for the last few decades.'
- Sarah Weinman, Los Angeles Times [read the full review]
Whenever a critic reviewing a crime novel assigns literary significance to the book, there's a risk of falling into clichés about "transcending genre." The truth is that some writers use and abuse genre constraints as they see fit. They simply write to their voice and interests.
James Sallis is such a writer. His six-volume cycle that featured African American detective Lew Griffin in a pre-Katrina New Orleans now seems haunting and eerie. Griffin could not exist without the blueprints of an earlier crime fiction writer, Sallis' literary hero and biographical subject, Chester Himes.
But Sallis' emphasis on political tumult and existential questions in the Griffin novels also appear throughout his body of work, be it in short stories ("Time's Hammers," "Potato Tree"), poems ("Sorrow's Kitchen"), criticism ("Ash of Stars") or other novels ("Death Will Have Your Eyes," "Renderings"). The Griffin novels, which dip in and out of time, blending major American historical and contemporary events together, manage to be plotless even as they burst with story in teeming layers.
The surface trappings of Sallis' more recent novels have changed, but he extends his existentialist viewpoint even further. When readers first met John Turner in "Cypress Grove" (2003), he was truly ex officio: ex-cop, ex-con, ex-psychologist and ex-husband who exiled himself in a small town outside Memphis. Over the course of that book and "Cripple Creek" (2006), Turner gradually took root, acquiring friends, reconnecting with family and building his emotional core to accept love and then shocking loss.
Sallis opens his new novel, "Salt River," with Turner facing a truth head-on: "Sometimes you just have to see how much music you can make with what you have left." The phrase, first uttered by Val, Turner's now-deceased girlfriend, is the novel's leitmotif, twisting and shifting to arrive at the answer that Turner already knows applies both to the town and to himself: "With the town, it's all economics. As for me, I think maybe I've seen a few too many people die, witnessed too much unbearable sadness that still somehow had to be borne."
What will be borne in this slim volume is the return of Turner's friend Frank Eldon, a possible murder confession, the shedding of more blood, and the ever-looming sense of brittleness and tentative action that Turner's philosophy-spouting pal Doc Oldham terms "frangible." The word melds fragility with tangibility, but Sallis is really talking about a sense of stasis - whether directly, as when Turner remarks that he has "been waiting all my life to figure out what to do," or more obliquely, as when he observes "how few of us actually make choices in our lives, how few of us have choices to make."
When Sallis' characters do make choices, however, he doesn't always give the reader a sense of closure. Rather, he invites chaos back in, as when a major character is never seen again, his or her fate left outside the scope of the book. This technique appeared recurrently in the Griffin cycle, but Sallis now drives home the point: that "so many people come into our lives, become important, then are gone."
Conventional crime fiction craves resolution, but by looking inside order's hairline fractures for any fleeting sense of chaos, the author creates a texture that is both comforting and quietly disturbing.
Even Sallis' use of genre conventions takes on greater import. His foreshadowing of a violent act with the phrase "the day was bright, the air clear, giving no hint of devastations recently wrought or of those to come" is a more beautifully written version of "had I but known," but the crystalline prose eliminates any hint of cliché.
And he conveys a major turning point in his protagonist's life with a simple admonishment from Doc Oldham that maybe Turner should tell someone and Turner's matter-of-fact rebuttal, "Who would I tell? And why?" This resonates with greater effectiveness than would pages of quasi-melodrama.
Sallis best intersects Turner's static existence with the foreboding elements outside his control in the closing pages of "Salt River." "So many stories leave you standing at the altar," Turner remarks, but instead of being afraid, he - and by extension, the reader - accepts this fate. "We don't stub our toes on streets of gold and lead rich lives, we don't tell the people we love how much we love them when it matters, we never quite inhabit the shadows we cast as we cross this world. We just go on."
These four words hold the power of simplicity and the musical ring of truth as only Sallis can deliver it - as he has done bravely, consistently, for the last few decades.
Sarah Weinman, Los Angeles Times
'Salt River is an elegantly crafted murder mystery that mixes rural melancholia with minimalist lyricism . . . a highly unusual, atmospherically unique mystery novel. '
- The Boston Globe
'a lean, elegiac gem'
- Adam Woog, Seattle Times [read the full review]
'Like a tightly structured blues song, the melancholy tale finds resonance in every line and every prolonged chord. Sallis comes as close as humanly possible here to turning a mystery novel into a lyric poem'
'James Sallis is a master of the short, sharp crime novel'
- Shots Magazine
'his books are worth reading solely for what rises from the inspired use of language'
- San Francisco Chronicle [read the full review]
James Sallis might be the "purest" writer of crime fiction in America today, which means that, beyond whatever story he's telling, his books are worth reading solely for what rises from the inspired use of language. Sallis is a man of multiple talents: poet, translator, musician, teacher and a crime fiction scholar. All of this is brought to bear, vividly, in Salt River. He assembles sentences like a virtuoso guitarist working the fret board, gracefully choosing each word (or more accurately, each note) and making it resonate. Scenes often read like prose-poems, but they are assembled with the rigor a mystery demands. The succession of chapters exert a rhythmic, almost tidal pull, leading to a conclusion that defies genre expectation - but satisfies something far deeper.
San Francisco Chronicle
'it’s one that is hard to forget'
- Donna Volkenannt, www.bookreporter.com [read the full review]
'If you enjoy fine, minimalist prose and thoughtful, intelligent crime stories, then you would be well advised to begin with the first in the series [Cypress Grove] and read them all.'
- Associated Press
'sweet song of the South from a crime novelist with the ear of a poet'
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution
'James Sallis is a superb writer '
- The Times
'Sublime, soulful, and essential'
- Mike Stafford, Bookgeeks [read the full review]
'If Camus wrote pulp, he'd read like Sallis'
- Andrew Donaldson, Times South Africa [read the full review]
'Sallis is a fastidious man, intelligent and widely read'
- Iain Sinclair, London Review of Books
'Sallis is an unsung genius of crime writing'
- Mark Timlin, Independent on Sunday