The final part of James Sallis' sequence of novels featuring Lew Griffin
"Somewhere, among the wastes of the world, is the key that will bring us back, restore us to our Earth and to our freedom," Pynchon wrote in Gravity's Rainbow. Never has a man's search among those wastes, for that freedom, been better represented than in this stunning conclusion to the Lew Griffin cycle.
In his old house in uptown New Orleans, Lew Griffin is alone again...or almost. He and Deborah are drifting apart. His son David has disappeared again, leaving behind a note that sounds final. Heading homeward from his retirement party, his friend, Don Walsh has been shot while interrupting a robbery. Worst of all, Lew himself is directionless, no longer teaching, with little to fill his days. He hasn't written anything in years. Even the attempt to discover the source of threatening letters sent to a friend leaves him feeling rootless and lost.
Through five previous novels, James Sallis has enthralled and challenged readers as he has told the story of Lew Griffin, private detective, teacher, writer, port, and a black man moving through a white man's world. And now Lew Griffin stands alone in a dark room, looking out. Behind him on the bed is a body. Wind pecks at the window. Traffic sounds drift aimlessly in. He thinks if he doesn't speak, doesn't think about what happened, somehow things will be alright again. He thinks about his own life, about the other's, about how the two of them came to be here...
In a series as much about identity as it is about crime, Sallis has held a mirror up to society and culture, while at the same time setting Lew Griffin the task of discovering who he is. As the detective stands in that dark room, the answers begin to come clear and the highly acclaimed series builds to a brilliantly constructed climax that will resonate in readers' minds long after the story is finished.
'Allusive and stylish, this stark metaphysical landscape will leave a resounding impression'
- Maxim Jakubowski, Guardian [read the full review]
'His writing is literate, intelligent, deeply moving, his exploration of what it is to be human is incisive, heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting. Ghost Of A Flea is a book that you don't want to finish and you can't put down.'
- Cath Staincliffe, Manchester Evening News [read the full review]
'a dark, rich novel about the final days of New Orleans author and intellectual Lew Griffin'
- Karen G Anderson, January Magazine [read the full review]
'a moving finale to the series'
- Mark Thwaite, readysteadybook.com [read the full review]
'more of an eloquent meditation than a mystery - and the meditation is on regret, death, loss, and the ultimately unsolvable mystery'
- Kris Lawson, raintaxi review of books [read the full review]
'a superb book: beautiful, lyrical, moving and oh-so-sad '
- MGS, barcelona review [read the full review]
The rather strange title fits in with all the other bug-related titles in Sallis's Lew Griffin series: we have had hornets, moths, crickets, long-legged flies and bluebottles. The last one, Bluebottle, was my only other foray into Griffin’s world and in that review I mentioned that it was a little difficult to quite get a fix on the black, New Orleans-based private detective / crime writer. Flea is more than likely the last in the series, and like the previous novel it takes a bit of the new reader’s energy to figure out who is who. One presumes Sallis wrote Flea believing that people don’t usually buy books out of sequence - and they don’t if they know it is a sequence, which is not clear here. A Griffin virgin therefore, picking up this book, has a bit of an uphill struggle – I did, and I’ve read one - but the end result is well worth the effort as this is a superb book: beautiful, lyrical, moving and oh-so-sad that I actually had tears in my eyes.
Somewhere Griffin’s lost the plot. He doesn’t detect any more and he doesn’t write any more and he barely raises a finger when a long-term lover walks out on him. Those thirsting for a puzzle or blazing guns and buckets of blood had best look elsewhere because the biggest mysteries here involve who is sending Lew’s goddaughter odd letters and e-mails and why all the pigeons in the park are dying. Then there is the body in the bed in the opening chapter that sends "the narrator" into the story (to say any more would be a spoiler). The true quest here is identity, an understanding of ‘self’: a theme that wove through Bluebottle and one presumes the other Griffin books. Lew seems incapable of understanding himself but has no trouble understanding others. For this reason he has loving, dedicated friends – even the ex-wife wants to declare peace – and shows kindness and consideration everywhere he goes; but can this smother some? Or is it his inability to come to terms with himself that drives loved ones, like his son, away? He is only in his fifties but acts like someone twenty years older who has given up. The answer may be in his alcoholic past or it just may well be that he is too darn well read. His life and thoughts seem driven by authors, by quotes, by books, begging the question, does Lew Griffin have an original emotional thought of his own? Flea becomes a roll call of writers, mostly well known but also the occasional forgotten one, such as Walter De La Mare.
Yes, even with some warm humour and witty dialogue, it is fairly depressing and maybe some under-thirties will think it sucks. To them I offer a grim warning: with thousands of baby-boomer authors heading for old age, books along the lines of Flea are going to be common. Hell, the BBs gave us a surfeit of coming-of-age nonsense, then the misery of hitting thirty/forty stuff, so expect a plethora of one-foot-in the grave tales (coming-of-grave, anyone?). If this is the case, Ghost of a Flea sets an impressive yardstick, I must say, and will certainly satisfy fans, but new readers may want to pick up one, two or even all of the Griffin novels to get the full benefit. M.G.S.
MGS, barcelona review
'a truly compelling, seemingly effortlessly complex story... Ghost of a Flea stands with John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest as one of the great contemporary novels on the passing of a series protagonist and of the milieu which has been made his own'
- Martin Kich, Professor of English, Wright State University, The Mystery Review [read the full review]
'luminously evocative prose and a protagonist of great charm whose wit flashes defiantly, and whose refusal to surrender is as gallant as it is heartbreaking'
- Kirkus Reviews [read the full review]
With this sixth Lew Griffin novel, Sallis brings to an end one of the genre's least conventional series (Bluebottle, 1999, etc.). Teacher, writer, boozer, lover, never more than part-time shamus. Griffin is first and foremost a philosopher, albeit a two-fisted one. Given sufficient provocation-often only an eyedropper's worth-he can level a bad guy as effectively as Spade, Marlowe, or hammer. But his real métier is thinking, thinking, relentlessly thinking, as opposed to Sherlockian sleuthing. This time out, for instance, the central crime is the poisoning of pigeons in a neighborhood park. Griffin, a black man trying to find a place in the white man's society, finds that his life has become by now a case of "too many lost battles." He's been beaten by cops, jailed , and banished to the streets, until melancholy suffuses his speech like a Louisiana miasma. "Everything got worse," he says. "Always. The world's single immutable law." The traditional mystery plot receives but a lick and a promise here: Griffin finds his long-lost son, loses him again, breaks up with still another woman, lumbers around the seamy side of New Orleans and, through day-trips back and forth in time, investigates himself-for the most part, as things turn out, unrewardingly.
The reader makes out a lot better. Though despair eventually triumphs, it does so over luminously evocative prose and a protagonist of great charm whose wit flashes defiantly, and whose refusal to surrender is as gallant as it is heartbreaking.
'Dead men don't tell tales, or so the saying goes. But the tale told by this one is extraordinary.'
- The Washington Post [read the full review]
[Ghost of a Flea] so stretches the boundaries of the genre that it deserves its own literary subcategory - maybe something ungainly like "the philosophic-poetic mystery." James Sallis's Lew Griffin has distinguished itself by the moodiness of the New Orleans atmosphere, the jagged elegance of its narrative style and the expansiveness of its anti-hero's literary citations. Who else in crime fiction quotes such relatively dim luminaries as George Gissing and Ambrose Bierce? And who else in crime fiction voices such epiphanies as this: "I seem never to learn that standing still doesn't work. There you are with a smile on your face, they won't notice me, and all the while the things you fear keep moving towards you, their smiles a violent travesty of your own."
Lew Griffin has been, by turns, a policeman, teacher and novelist; in Ghost of A Flea, the fifth and decidedly final novel of the series, he's just a worn-out older man, baffled by the erratic behavior of his adult son, as well as lesser mysteries like the threatening letters received by a friend and a violent assault on a policeman colleague. Dead men don't tell tales, or so the saying goes. But the tale told by this one is extraordinary.
The Washington Post
- Boston Globe [read the full review]
"Drop by drop at the heart, the pain of the pain remembered comes again," wrote Aeschylus. In a story loosely based on "Agamemnon," James Sallis searches the streets of New Orleans as he brings his noir series about Lew Griffin, African-American, small-time private investigator in search of his identity, to a close in Ghost of A Flea, the sixth novel in a journey that began with The Long-Legged Fly in 1992. The books are set in just-historical time, beginning in 1964, and they move episodically, almost shambolic in their apparent lack of organization, with great cunning and remarkable imagery, to an ending: not a conclusion but a place to stop. Sallis has written a biography of the black American writer Chester Himes, short stories, poems, and much else, and reviewers have compared him to Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, and Paul Auster, though only the Auster comparison stands up. Sallis's publisher, has reissued The Long Legged Fly in paperback together with Ghost of a Flea, and read together, even without the four novels between, they are mesmerizing. Sallis has found a way to do what many genre authors who have tied themselves to a series figure have been unable to do: bring it all to an end.
'a real gem of a book, with more twists, turns and half-obscured layers than you can shake a stick at'
- Alistair Fitchett, tangents.co.uk [read the full review]
'fans of particularly sophisticated writing will love the experience of being drawn deeper and deeper into circles of narrative complexity'
- Publishers Weekly [read the full review]
'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