James Sallis

No Exit Press pbk £7.99

Released: March 22nd 2010

Reviewer: Damien Seaman

Damien Seaman’s crime fiction and non-fiction articles have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Noir Originals and Spinetingler Magazine. Drop him a line at:


James Sallis makes mystery writing look easy. His fiction, always lean, somehow manages to contain plenty of space and stillness. His plots seem to creep up on you while your attention is diverted. And suddenly there you are, in the middle of a story whose ending you have to know, as though the plot was there all along waiting for you to stub your toe on it. 

So it is with Sallis’ Salt River. The book is the third to feature protagonist John Turner, an ex-cop, ex-con, ex-Vietnam vet and ex-therapist who wound up in an unnamed backwater Southern town two novels ago and decided to stick around. The plot is hard to summarise without giving everything away, but begins when the sheriff’s son crashes a stolen car into City Hall. Then Turner’s friend Eldon Brown says he’s being pursued by the law because ‘they think I killed someone.’ The kicker is, Eldon’s not sure whether he killed anyone or not. 

Turner’s a likeable character. With all that baggage, all that life experience, he spends most of the book contemplating the consequences of the action going on around him, as well as of his own actions. This contemplation takes the form of frequent nuggets of philosophy: 

‘It struck me again, as it had so often in my time as a therapist…how few of us actually make choices in our lives, how few of us have choices to make. So much is mapped out: in our DNA, our class and temperaments, the way we’re raised, the influence of those we meet.’  

Indeed this philosophising lies at the heart of Sallis’ work and of his appeal. Where other crime writers aiming for the same effect fail is that the philosophy they push on us is full of truisms that most readers have already heard a hundred times before. Sallis alone possesses the ability to tell you something you won’t have thought of, and to make it seem so true that you’ve always thought it, and only needed Sallis to express it for you.  

But philosophy is not all. Sallis’s descriptive abilities are unsurpassed, as for example when he describes a lawman’s moustache as running out ‘in two wings from his nostrils, as though he had sneezed it into being’. His description is so efficient that there’s very little of it in the novel. He doesn’t need it, for we picture everything using the few powerful visual clues he gives us. Once there, Sallis drives much of his story with crackling dialogue that is also spare and efficient. How often have we heard people say of an author that they never waste words? Well, in Sallis’ case it is true. Yet his work never feels mean or slight. It is instead rich and rewarding, and practically demands an immediate second reading. 

Read Damien’s interview with James Sallis here






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