Sarah Jane by James Sallis

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‘All stories are ghost stories, about things lost, people, memories, home, passion, youth, about things struggling to be seen, to be accepted by the living.’

I’m not going to apologise for being a little quote heavy in this review of Sarah Jane by James Sallis, such is the beauty of the prose on every page. Sallis fits so much into the 190 pages of his new novel, it’s quite staggering and ultimately difficult to wedge the story into any one genre.  And that’s a good thing. On the surface it’s a crime mystery but it proves to be so much more, providing a poetic intimacy to the storytelling and transcending the traditional boundaries.

The first third of the book is an intricate and poignant character study of the protagonist, taking the reader on an almost dream like journey of Sarah Jane Pullman’s beginnings in small town America, through to her lost years trying to find herself and a place in the world, enduring a variety of pain on the way. After a mentally nomadic early life, earning money in low paid jobs, Sarah Jane almost falls into the role of a police officer then, when her predecessor Cal Phillips disappears, taking up the job as acting sheriff. This is where the mystery plot begins. As it develops so does her relationship with her understudy KC, and Sarah Jane gradually turns from rookie to mentor, finding a home in a previously unlikely path as a cop.

Running parallel with the main story, the sub-plots based on Sarah Jane’s day to day life in uniform give the book a real balance in terms of pace and tone. Sallis shows his considerable skills as a storyteller in these snippets of Sarah Jane’s experiences which gives his likable protagonist a real depth and warmth. So economic is Sallis with his carefully chosen words and so swift are the scene transitions that switching off, even for a minute, means missing out on some nugget of a tale, some clue to the main mystery or another thought provoking line. Interwoven with the plot and character development are some mesmeric, reflective and observational passages which I found myself reading over and over again.

‘The worst of it can come not in the dark as you’d expect, but in early light, when at 5 or 5:15 you wake with the world piecing itself back together outside and pieces of your life rattling around in your head like loose teeth in a cup.’

Readers of Sallis’s early work will be well versed in the New Orleans noir of sleuth Lew Griffin but he is probably best known for his novel Drive which was adapted into the excellent film of the same name starring Ryan Gosling. Whilst that provided a period in the Hollywood spotlight, Sallis and his writing are far more understated. His versatility is impressive and Sarah Jane is a particularly striking and literary novel which ensures even readers who may not normally venture to the crime section will find plenty to admire.

In James Sallis, No Exit Press have a true gem in their stable and he is just one reason they were recently crowned Crime and Mystery Publisher of the year at the annual Crime Writer’s Association awards. Sarah Jane is an instant classic and a reminder of the truly original voice that Sallis is to literary crime.

I’ll leave you with a passage I hope you enjoy. I know I have several times already.

‘The days march by and extraordinary things happen all around us.  Small miracles, haphazard events, bursts of joy, revelations. An old man painfully gets to his knees to stroke the dying cat he found on his patio. A shy child hears live music for the first time and dances. Thousands of fireflies in the Smoky Mountains blink their tail lights every one at the same time. We hunker down in our daily lives, in the shelter of routines and assumption. We miss so much.’

Sarah Jane is published by No Exit Press and is available here.

James Sallis

James Sallis has published sixteen novels, multiple collections of short stories, essays, and poems, books of musicology, a biography of Chester Himes, and a translation of Raymond Queneau’s novel Saint Glinglin. He has written about books for the LA Times, New York Times, and Washington Post, and for some years served as a books columnist for the Boston Globe. He has received a lifetime achievement award from Bouchercon, the Hammett Award for literary excellence in crime writing, and the Grand Prix de Littérature policière.

Reviewed by Colin James

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