A weblog dedicated to noir fiction and film, music, poetry and politics.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Two more excellent books from London Books: James Curtis’s most well-known novel, They Drive By Night (adapted for the screen in 1938 by Arthur B. Woods) and James Westerby’s wonderfully titled Wide Boys Never Work (adapted for the screen in 1956, entitled Soho Incident). Both also come with informative and stylish introductions by Jonathan Meades and Iain Sinclair respectively. I’ve been after Wide Boys for years, and the novel doesn’t disappoint. It’s another London lowlife novel that captures a time and place as well as anything written during the period. While They Drive By Night is Curtis classic, coming hard on the heels of the author’s The Gilt Kid, that London Books published last year. If you are into the likes of Robin Cook/Derek Raymond, Gerald Kersh, Alexander Baron (The Lowlife) and Emanuel Litvonoff (Journey Through a Small Planet), you’ll love both these books. Curtis ended his life in relative poverty, haunting the pubs of Kilburn and Camden, while Westerby (1909-1968), after writing a number of other novels in the Horace McCoy-James M. Cain school, headed to Hollywood, courtesty of Disney, and stayed for the remainder of his life, churning out various screenplays and hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Both writers and books are highly recommended.
In this, his third Turner novel, Sallis demonstrates the degree to which his writing reflects his long-held revisionism regarding the poetics of the genre. More interested in plot as a process rather than a means to an end, Sallis’s narratives invariably include fictional memoir, meaningful quotations, episodic rumination, diversions, non-sequitors and a great deal of atmosphere. A deputy sheriff of a small town outside Memphis, Turner, a former therapist who has served time in Vietnam as well as the penitentiary, doesn’t investigate events so much as respond to them. Still, stuff happens, carrying with it a knock-on effect when it comes to others in Turner’s small community. In fact, this might constitute a more realistic, not to mention subversive, approach than that which one often comes across in a genre so thoroughly saturated in excess. It’s not that Turner is passive, so much as resigned to his work and reflective when it comes to his past and the human condition. Here it’s been two years since his girlfriend, Val, was shot and Turner is still alone, still grieving, and still marginally removed from the world. Yet he does his job as best he can, responding to calls that the sheriff’s estranged son has been involved in a car accident, that an elderly woman has been kidnapped and beaten, and that Val’s old banjo picking partner, Eldon, has turned up with news that he might have killed someone. As usual, some of these crimes coalesce, while others remain unconnected. As we come to expect from Sallis, Salt River is filled with insight, redemption, and tantalizing passages, like the following: “I was a psychologist once, I was a cop who had seen some of the worst mankind had to offer and an ex-con who had been privy to society’s best, gnarled efforts at greatheartedness and manipulation. Altruism gets handed to me, I’m automatically peeling back the label, looking to see what’s underneath.” There might be fewer music references here, but I liked Salt River even more than Cypress Grove and its predecessor, Cripple Creek, and, at a honed down 150 pages, was able to gobble it up in a single reading. Salt River, unique and truthful, places Sallis further than ever outside mainstream crime fiction. Not unlike Turner himself.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.