A hired killer on his final job; a burned-out detective whose wife is dying slowly and in agony; a young boy abandoned by his parents and living alone by his wits. Three people, solitary and disconnected from society.
The detective is looking for the killer, Christian, though he doesn't know that. Christian is trying to find the man who stepped in and took down his target before he had the chance. And the boy, Jimmie, is having the killer's dreams. While they never meet, they are inextricably linked, and as their stories unfold, all find the solace of community.
In what is at one and the same time a coming-of-age novel, a realistic crime novel and a novel of the contemporary Southwest, The Killer Is Dying is above all the story of three men of vastly different age and background, and of the shape their lives take against the unforgiving sunlight and sprawl of America's fifth largest city, Phoenix.
'Beautifully written and subtly brought together'
- Peter Millar, The Times [read the full review]
''Sallis is a wonderful writer, dark, lyrical and compelling''
- Andrew Taylor, The Spectator [read the full review]
'Wonderful writing that stitches a complex picture of America’s south west, with the story of a killer and a cop as part of that tapestry.'
- Crime Fiction Lover [read the full review]
'Sallis’s spare, concrete prose achieves the level of poetry'
- Julia Handford, Telegraph [read the full review]
'carefully crafted, restrained and eloquent'
- Jacques Testard, Times Literary Supplement [read the full review]
The American crime writer James Sallis has been earmarked for some mainstream attention this year, courtesy of the Hollywood adaptation of his novel Drive (2005), much applauded at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Coinciding with the release of the film this month comes The Killer is Dying, a sparse, noir tale of a slowly dying hitman.
Set in Phoenix, Arizona, Sallis’s latest novel focuses on three very different characters. Christian, a Vietnam war veteran turned hit man, fighting illness to pull of one last hit; a middle-aged homicide detective, Dale Sayles, whose wife is slowly dying of cancer; and Jimmie Kostof, a teenager abandoned by his parents to a drab life of survival in his suburban home.
Seemingly unconnected, the characters’ lives chaotically intersect. Someone tries to murder Christian’s target – an innocuous accountant – sending him of on a search for the interloper. Sayles and his partner Graves are investigating the attempted killing, which brings them into contact with both the hit man and his rival. Stranger and less effective is the Jimmie connection: as the drama slowly unfolds, it emerges that he dreams the killer’s dreams. Resolutions are implied, the plot propelled by spare prose more suggestive than revelatory. We learn that the three characters have in common the essential human bond of loss. ‘People leave us’, Jimmie tells himself. ‘All our lives are a going-away.’
Death, decay, alienation – Sallis’s minimalist meditations find an echo in the city of Phoenix, an alien place in inhospitable territory. Far removed from the classic crime novels of Raymond Chandler or Chester Himes – whose influence Sallis has written about – The Killer is Dying is less crime-solving than existential musing. While carefully crafted, restrained and eloquent, Sallis’s latest is more hallucinatory than suspenseful, driven by the realization of loss rather than the fulfilment of closure habitual to the genre.
Jacques Testard, Times Literary Supplement
'James Sallis is without doubt the most underrated novelist currently working in America'
- Catholic Herald [read the full review]
James Sallis is without doubt the most underrated novelist currently working in America. His new novel is a masterclass in writing. It's a tale of three individuals who never meet but spend the whole book chasing each other's tails.Sepuchral prose and deep empathetic nuance mark this one out as a classic. It's a novel about dying and suffering and the grace we manage to wring out of life's failures.
'A breathtaking novel about a dying hitman and his last job'
- Mike Nicol, Books Live [read the full review]
'Sallis writes crime novels that read like literature
- Los Angeles Times
'Through no-nonsense staccato chapters, with minimal action, Sallis does a superb job exploring the workings of his characters' thoughts and motives. '
- Publishers Weekly [read the full review]
'No other writer renders the texture of solitude with more uncanny accuracy or brings more poetic intensity to the everyday.'
- John Repp, Cleveland.com [read the full review]
'Taut and evocative, this beautifully written story is slow to unfold but haunting in its effect'
- Jeff Popple, Sunday Canberra Times [read the full review]
Sallis’s literate, intelligent crime novel provides a dark picture of life. It follows three haracters who are inextricably linked by the murder of a nondescript man. Christian was hired to kill the man, but, before he can, another killer steps in and shoots him. As Christian tries to find the killer, a burnt-out detective, Sayles, is searching for Christian while also trying to come to terms with his wife’s fatal illness. Meanwhile, a young boy abandoned by his parents is living alone and attempting to make sense of his strange dreams.
Taut and evocative, this beautifully written story is slow to unfold but haunting in its effect.
Jeff Popple, Sunday Canberra Times
'one of the very best writers in the crime fiction genre'
- Barry Forshaw, Crime Time [read the full review]
'A dazzling, haunting work that intertwines the tales of three characters who never actually meet, but who are nevertheless inextricably linked.'
- Big Issue [read the full review]
THE KILLER IS DYING
(No Exit Press, £7.99)
At various times he’s been a poet, a translator, a musician
and a respiratory therapist. Perhaps most notably, though,
over the past 20 years James Sallis has turned crime writing
into a high art. With the much feted film version of his novel 'Drive' currently in cinemas and his profile riding high, Sallis releases 'The Killer Is Dying' – a dazzling, haunting work that intertwines the tales of three characters who never actually meet, but who are nevertheless inextricably linked.
Was the complex structure of The Killer Is Dying an attempt to give yourself a new challenge, to keep yourself interested?
Among the many perils of creative work is the ease with
which one may become, after a time, professionalised.
One knows how to do things. Among the delights is that,
if you’re really working at it, you never get where you wish to be: you’re forever reaching. Each page I write,
each sentence, is in the effort to keep myself – and the
reader! – interested, to pose new challenges. Writing is
problem solving. Writing is pattern making. If you don’t
create new problems for yourself, where’s the fun?
Has the making of the Drive film proved to be a distraction – or even an inspiration – to you while you were writing 'The Killer Is Dying'?
It’s only as the film neared release that its world began to
impinge upon mine, with requests for interviews and the like. Up to that point the entire affair was in the hands of
plucky chance and of Marc Platt Productions. I’d built the
diving board everyone jumped off – that was all.
Do you think that your interests in poetry and music feed into the rhythms of your writing?
Absolutely. Words have a sensuous surface, a physical
presence, they sing in certain ways when turned into the
wind. And our apprehension of language is mightily
influenced by the cadences in which that language is
delivered, the slowly paced, headlong rushes, silences.
Language is about information – but there are all kinds of
information, and much of it, in writing as in life, is subtle. We reach for that.
You’re based in Arizona, but you lived in London during the late 1960s and you’ve suggested that you regret not moving back at a later date. Can you still imagine living in the UK?
I was there helping edit New Worlds magazine with Mike
Moorcock – formative years for me. I can imagine living
anywhere, that tree house I built when I was ten, for
instance, because that’s what I do, I imagine myself into
other lives. But these days, it’s difficult to get me out of
the house, or some days even out of this room – just ask
my wife, Karyn. Or Grace the hungry cat.
You’ve said that you were attracted to crime writing back in the 1980s because it was so very vibrant at the time. Do you think that’s still the case now?
Hmmm. James Lee Burke, Danny Woodrell, Craig McDonald, Ken Bruen, John Harvey, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Lethem, Ian Rankin, George Pelecanos… How much space do we have? Yes.
'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