These days it's become a cliché to divide crime fiction up into hard and soft American hard-boiled versus cosy British, Raymond Chandler versus Agatha Christie, and so on. But perhaps the real split is not between the Americans and the British at all, but between the writers of whodunits and whydunits the descendants, on the one hand, of Conan Doyle, and, on the other, of Dostoyevsky.
James Sallis, with his series of New Orleans detective novels, is most certainly not a writer of whodunits. His detective, a black man by the name of Lew Griffin, frequently neither knows nor cares who is repsonsible for the crimes he reluctantly investigates (he memorably described his modus operandi as follows: 'I sat in bars and drank, and eventually guys I was looking for would stumble by and trip over my feet'). But Sallis is not a straightforward writer of psychological thrillers either. Lew Griffin moves through a Dostoyevskyan world of shade and more shade, but his creator isn't content to simply ask whydunit; he seems also to want to know whywriteit. These are detective novels that question the very purpose and meaning of detective novels. And if that sounds dry don't worry, they are also funny, bawdy and violent tales of America's most seductive, savage city New Orleans.
A recent French article on American crime fiction described James Sallis, along with Walter Mosley, as one of the two black writers who are currently revolutionising the genre. Which amuses the James Sallis I met in London, who turns out to be a fiftyish, bearded and distinctly white individual. He comments: 'I believe the novelist's job is to imagine himself into other lives and other people. That is the greatness of the novel, and to hold that a middle-class, middle-aged white man can only write about middle-aged, middle-class white men certainly limits the prospect for any kind of interesting writing. The one thing we can't do in life is put ourselves in someone else's head but that's precisely what artists try to do. We try to get as close as we can. To say I can't write from the point of view of a black man or woman is absurd: that's what I do. I may not write well but I can surely try.'
Even so, the character of Lew Griffin, a violent, near-alcoholic black detective, would seem to be poles apart from the urbane Sallis. But look a little closer and the parallels start to appear. Both men come from the Mississippi delta town of Helena, Arkansas. 'It's a town that was very important to the blues,' comments Sallis. 'Robert Johnson lived there briefly. Sonny Boy Williamson used to broadcast on the radio every day when I was growing up. It was a typical small southern town in which everybody knew everybody else's business. There's a lot of me in Lew. Growing up in the South made me very aware of black and white.'
Griffin, like Sallis, left town at seventeen, never to return. And although he's capable of extreme violence, he's also an intellectual a specialist in French fiction and a writer of crime novels not unlike the ones that Sallis himself writes. And yes, you may well want to use the word post-modern at this point. For Sallis' peculiar achievement is to take all the tricks of modernist fiction the kind of narrative games more usually found in the work of a Paul Auster or a Martin Amis and apply them to the world of noir.
You might wonder what's so new about that. Haven't Auster and Amis both done exactly the same thing: written novels that play with the conventions of the crime novel? Perhaps, but the difference here is that Sallis isn't playing with the crime novel; he takes the form entirely seriously. Thus the books function perfectly well on the level of noir fiction as stories of a man living a life right on the edge but at the same time they blow apart the genre's tired conventions. As Sallis observes: 'I'm writing these literary novels in the context of a detective story becuase I love both and I've always been looking for books that seek to do both. I've never found one yet that I'm completely happy with. I guess I'm trying to write that one book I'm always looking for and can never find.'
Like many of his heroes Chandler and Chester Himes among them Sallis came relatively late to the crime novel. After leaving Helena, he headed over to college in New Orleans and then up to Iowa to journalism school before dropping out to write short stories (this was in the Sixties when it was still possible to make a living writing short stories). A meeting with Michael Moorcock led him to London, where he became editor of the enormously influential sci-fi magazine New Worlds. 'Then I wnt back to the States and found that the market for short stories had collapsed. I looked around for some other way to make a living and ended up writing about music, jazz and blues.'
Sallis had become interested in Hammett and Chandler, but it was not until twenty years later that his enthusiasm bore fruit. Yet Sallis' first crime novel, The Long-Legged Fly, didn't come out of any plan to write a series of PI novels. Instead it began with a single image: 'It started with the image of a deserted oilfield with the pumps making this quiet hydraulic sound, and the idea of this man stepping out into the darkness with some sort of revenge on his mind. It was one of those scenes that wouldn't go away. What I wanted to do was have this man do something that's horrible and unforgivable a murder and then make you really like him. So I wrote the first scene and went on from there. I wasn't sure at this point where the character's rage was coming from. It was about twenty pages in when I realised he was a black man, and that was where his rage came from. I honestly didn't know that when I started.'
Left on its own, The Long-Legged Fly might have been no more than an oddity, an intriguing experiment. Instead Sallis decided to follow it up, realising that in Lew Griffin he had created an entirely singular character. The next book, Moth , represented a big step forward. Moth was not just a fascinating meditation on the crime novel but a book full of passion and darkness, a terrible story of love and loss, all rendered in two hundred pages flat.
The third novel in the series, Black Hornet, went back to the Sixties, taking its inspiration from a notorious New Orleans mass murder of the time, in which a black sniper named Mark Essex set up on top of a hotel and opened fire on any white people he could see. Sallis took the bare bones of this case the idea of a sniper setting to work in a city in which black and white live under a fragile state of truce and used it to produce a mesmerising vision of the Sixties as a time, not of peace and love, but of fracture and hatred.
And so we come to the latest instalment in the series, Eye of the Cricket. This is the closest Sallis has yet come to writing a conventional crime novel. It's certainly his only book to offer anything resembling a happy ending. The tricksy reflections on the art of the novel are now so thoroughly incorporated into Sallis' style that they no longer stand out, and a new-found confidence in plotting sees Sallis successfully juggling several different plot strands.
But, of course, nothing is ever quite as it seems in Sallis' world. It's only after finishing Eye of the Cricket that you realise this isn't really a book about crime at all, but rather a search for a lost son, and beyond that an inquiry into the nature of identity. In short, then, this latest novel is further evidence that Sallis is continuing to produce some of the most genuinely innovative work not only in crime fiction, but in modern ficiton as a whole.
John Williams is author of the acclaimed Into the Badlands (Paladin, 1991; Flamingo, 1993), a collection of interviews with US crime writers. A novelist in his own right, he has also published Faithless (Serpent's Tail, 1997) and Cardiff Dead (Bloomsbury, 2001), as well as the crime short story collection Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub (Bloomsbury, 1999). He is based in Wales.
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