Wednesday, March 30, 2016


SALT RIVER by James Sallis (No Exit Press, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Two years after the loss of his lady love, ex-cop, ex-con, ex-therapist John Turner finds himself the defacto Sheriff of a dying town. His life is complicated by the return of two people: the actual Sheriff's son, who arrives in spectacular fashion by plowing into City Hall in a stolen car, and Turner's good friend Eldon, who may or may not have killed someone. 

Let's get this out of the way first: if you're looking for fast-paced crime fiction or an intricately intriguing mystery plot-line then James Sallis may not be for you. His tales meander, and are more about damaged characters and musings on the human condition.

But if you like evocative storytelling that will make you think, that pierces into some of those dark and doubting places in our souls like a sliver of dull daylight through the cracks of an abandoned building, then you're in for a real treat when you open one of James Sallis's lyrical crime tales.

A published poet as well as a crime writer, short story writer, essayist, reviewer, and string band member, Sallis brings a broad outlook to his novels while at the same time distilling things in a very concise, powerful way. His writing is elegant and meditative, his prose full of poetic delights.

Salt River caps his trilogy about Deputy Sheriff John Turner, a man living out his days in a dying small town near Memphis. There is some mystery and crime - what's going on with the Sheriff's long-lost son renovating City Hall with his car, and is Turner's good friend Eldon guilty of murder or not? But really this book is more about aging, and dying. The passing of time and the waning of life. What we do with the time we have left. It's contemplative and introspective, and appears to ramble across the landscape more than having clear direction, but the writing is so beautiful and the chords struck so resonant that I didn't mind, that I didn't miss it having a clear spine of crime investigation. 

If you like Southern Gothic tales, or classic noir that isn't as neat as a lot of crime fiction, then you might really appreciate what Sallis has created in Salt River. He brings the battered nature of his rural Tennessee setting to vivid life with poetic insight. He cuts us to the core as he and his characters reflect on the cruel inequities that can divert our lives, the inescapable countdown to when our own lights will be switched off for a final time, and how to find and cherish moments of beauty, however small, before then. The flowering weeds growing through paving-stone cracks in a prison yard.

Overall, Salt River is a slim novel (160 pages) that packs a subtle but powerful punch.

Craig Sisterson is a journalist from New Zealand who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 140 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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