SALT RIVER by James Sallis

An author of compact mysteries rooted in the Deep South, poet and novelist James Sallis saw his profile rise last year after the release of the critically acclaimed Ryan Gosling movie Drive, an adaptation of his eponymous novel. Otherwise best known for his Lew Griffin series, his 2008 novel Salt River follows on from Cypress Grove (2003) and Cripple Creek (2006) and concludes a trilogy since republished in the omnibus, What You Have Left. The protagonist is John Turner, a Vietnam vet and onetime cop who became a therapist after serving nine years in jail after being convicted of the death of his police partner. Now he lives not too far from Memphis in Cripple Creek, working as the Deputy Sheriff.

The following review is offered as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which has reached the letter S and Patti’s  Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which this week is hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog. You should head over there right now and check out some of the other selections on offer. It is also part of my 2012 Local Library Challenge, in which I aim to supporting a great and valuable institution currently under threat in the UK from the draconian cuts of the present government by borrowing books from authors that are new to me.

“Strange how, as we age, our lives turn to metaphor”

Two years after the event, Turner is still in mourning after the violent death of his love, Val Bjorn, gunned down on their porch. He seems to be in some sort of limbo, trying to make the most of what he has left but also leading a kind of halting, parenthetical existence, waiting for something though initially we are not entirely sure what that might actually be. He is a lonely figure in his grief, but he is not really alone for much of the book as friends from his past come back to visit. The most significant, on a personal level, is itinerant musician Eldon Brown, who arrives unexpected and on the run from a murder charge in Arlington, Texas. When Turner asks him if he is guilty, his friend answers that he is genuinely unsure of his own guilt. Turner decides to keep him hidden in his home when the law comes looking for him. At the same time a Buick smashes into the side of the City Hall in the small town’s main street. At the wheel is Billy Bates, the son of the sheriff, a troubled young man who, it appears, has stolen the car from a reclusive old woman whose house has been ransacked. It is not long before she too is found. Turner is thus drawn back into his old life to help his friend the sheriff, peripatetically moving from one event to another.

“To me she seemed one of those people who skip across the surface of their lives, never touching down for long, forever changing, a bright stone surging up into air and sunlight again and again.”

This brief novel is long on atmosphere and full of acute observation, with characters frequently stopping to talk, pontificate and comment on the world around them. Interspersed with these are several vignettes made up of the kind of strange portents and macabre events that would be out of place in Yoknapatawpha County. One of the most disturbing involves the discovery of a child that got trapped in a broken down old house and who, being mute, was not able to cry out for help. Not that this would have made any difference as the family seems uncaring about the whole affair, the child’s silence a source of shame and isolation. A bird smashes through a windscreen and eventually much more powerful forces of nature come to devastate the already ruined small town – and then Bates’ wife goes missing.

“I found the handgun eight or nine yards off, plunged into the ground muzzle-first as if planted there and just starting to grow.”

By its conclusion the main plot points have been resolved though this does not really feel like a book with a definitive ending as such. Given that this certainly plays like the third and last part of a trilogy one might have expected something more, well, final, but this is a story about facing the inevitable and waiting for the end. The plot is secondary to the often startling images and fine, poetic juxtapositions tp create a sombre but powerful state of mind. It is a melancholy and morbid book but not necessarily a misanthropic one though this Salt River is inherently sad, focusing totally on people who, one way or another, have pretty much come to the end of the road. Instinctively one might have liked something more definitive on the final page, but Mr Sallis hardly needs any advice on how to write his books as he knows exactly how to convey the feeling and tone he is striving for. Just take this marvelous little physical description:

“A mustache ran in two wings out of his nostrils, as though he had sneezed it into being”

The story does meander a little bit at times, so much so occasionally that I did start to wonder if the structure was not meant to be taken as being entirely linear. But to insist on a more straightforward narrative would be to rob this evocative little book (it’s about 150 pages in length) would rob it of much of its pungent aroma. It’s easy to see why Mr Sallis regularly receives such critical plaudits – He is very, very good.

The author homepage can be found at:

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2012 Alphabet of Crime, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Friday's Forgotten Book, James Sallis, Noir, Support Your Local Library Challenge. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to SALT RIVER by James Sallis

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Oh, thanks for this fine review. I’m familiar with Sallis’ Lew Griffin series (love the New Orleans setting), but not with this protagonist. I’m so glad to hear this one is just as good as the Griffin series. I’ll have to check it out.

    • Thanks Margot, I really liked it, as penumbral as it is. Admittedly I would not normally have chosen to start with the end of the trilogy but it was the one the library had at the time …

  2. Sergio, I hardly ever read fiction of the 1990s and 2000s busy as I am reading fiction up to, say, the mid-1980s. I do read new fiction occasionally and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for James Sallis’ work. WHAT YOU HAVE LEFT seems to be a good place to start. Thanks for the review of “Salt River” and the link to the author’s website.

    • Hi Prashant, I know what you mean, there’s so much great stuff out there already! Glad you enjoyed the review – Sallis is a fascinating writer, well worth the effort. If you see the movie Drive you might see if it’s your kind of thing?

  3. Todd Mason says:

    Well, Prashant, you and Sergio and everyone else who might like this work will probably enjoy the earlier, primarily science fiction work of James Sallis, which carried most of the hallmarks that Sergio notes in his current crime fiction. When I first corresponded with Sallis some years back, he was surprised anyone remember that work. He still reviews fiction occasionally for THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION:

  4. Valli says:

    New author to me! My local library has some books by him. I will check it out. Thanks for the review.

  5. Joe Barone says:

    Thanks. I’ve put this one on my reading list.

  6. Sergio and Todd: Thanks very much for the additional information about James Sallis. I’m pretty sure I have seen DRIVE on television—the trailer looks awfully familiar; at least Gosling does. The book and movie are definitely my kind of thing considering that the only genre I don’t read (as far as books go) is romance. Otherwise I cast a wide net. Only problem is time. Over the past few days I picked up over a dozen novels by Ed McBain, John MacDonald, Don Pendleton and others. A surprise find was “Kiss Me Deadly” by Mickey Spillane. I remember you mentioned this book in your review of Spillane’s “The Long Wait” recently. Now you add these books to the 100-odd in my TBR pile and you’ll know why I don’t have time for new books. All the paperbacks in my collection date up to 1985; most of them are before 1970. The only book of the 21st century I’m reading currently is Harry Potter 6!

    I’m familiar with sfsite suggested by Todd though I haven’t been there in recent days. I’ll check out James Sallis’ sf reviews.

    • Drive is a bit more violent than Salt River (well, a lot more violent actually) but that seems o be part of the urban ambience it is going for as opposed to the desolate backwoods depicted in this novel. Really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the Spillane (speaking of violence …).

  7. TracyK says:

    This is an author on my TBR pile that I haven’t gotten to. I have the trilogy volume and The Long-Legged Fly. Looking forward to reading them when I have time. Maybe next year.

    Recently I commented on Margot Kinberg’s blog that I may have avoided novels set in the South because that is where I grew up. Just don’t want to be reminded of the issues there.

    • Thanks TracyK – I’ve only ever been to urban centres like L.A., New York and mostly San Francisco so I’m afraid my frame of reference is entirely from books and movies. It felt authentic in a dramatic sense, let me put it that way … Would be great to find out what you make of it though.

  8. Several of my friends told me they liked the movie version of DRIVE better than the novel it’s based on. I’m with TracyK: there’s a darkness at the heart of Sallis’ work.

    • Thanks George. Reviews of Sallis’ sequel, Driven, have been a little bit disappointing so I haven’t read that one yet. Some of his imagery is very stark and violent and the plotting can seem a bit wayward I suppose, but like Daniel Woodrell (the author he most reminds me of), he has a wonderful way with words.

  9. neer says:

    I don’t read many contemporary authors and I am not sure whether I’ll like something that ends on an uncertain note. However since you have rated him so high, I am going to see whether he is there in the librarary.

  10. So this is the guy indirectly responsible for the popularity of Pinterest! 🙂 Thanks for the review. It really sounds like an interesting series and if Drive the movie is true to the book, then Sallis sounds like a very good writer. I’ll keep an eye out for his work.

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