It's a good time for James Sallis. Drive, adapted from his novel, has hit the screens, and his new book, The Killer Is Dying has arrived in bookshops. I haven't seen Drive (I'll wait until the hype turns into a pleasant buzz), but The Killer... is exactly what one would expect but more so from this always excellent novelist. Tersely hard-boiled, literary, soulful and filled with surprises. it's, for me, a step up from his last couple outings in which Sallis was, I thought, marking time, no matter that the time he was marking was still as original as it was interesting.
Invariably a man who likes his narratives to retain more than a small amount of internal mystery, Sallis, as usual, makes no excuses for that mystery, by which I really mean narrative complexity. Here, without revealing his hand too soon, Sallis intertwines three world-weary narratives, allowing them to compete with one another before becoming almost indistinguishable. Likewise, dream and reality, and everything becomes dependent on everything else: an ageing detective whose wife is dying, a young boy struggling to survive on his own, and a hit man looking for the person who beat him to his target. The boy is left with the hit-man's dreams, while the hit-man leaves messages for the cop who is tracking him down. They all have their own story, fragments of lost lives that reveal their vulnerability, their sense of mortality, and their latent desire to connect.
The Killer... is also a novel about the southwest, that crazy place where politicians are shot, immigrants are suspect, and the sun, which eats into the skin, puts everyone on edge, and makes skin cancer merely a chapeau away. But that makes the place only fractionally more crazy or dangerous than anywhere else. It helps, though barely explains Sallis's fondness for approaching things at an odd angle, or for someone who searches for their nemesis only to find it's their spiritual double. As one cop says to an older cop, "It would help if we had some idea what we're looking for." The older cops answers, "And how often does that happen, that we know what we're looking for?" Not often, is all one can say, because The Killer is about coming to terms with things, whether disillusionment, compromise or the mysteries of life: "Maybe we have to [lose the dream], to go on. Or maybe we only displace it, as we do so much else. Is that why we are all so sad? Are we? Sad? How can we be with life so full around us, with so very much of the world to engage in? But always the bad ending. Is the ending what matters?" To which one can only add, no, it's not at all, it's not the ending that matters, but how one arrives at it; it's the process that counts, and that's something Sallis and the characters in the The Killer... know all too well.
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.