Without wishing to show disrespect to the genre that has fought hard for the respectability it now (fitfully) enjoys, ‘crime fiction’ seems too limited a term for the writing of the American master James Sallis. Despite the rigorously stripped-down quality of his writing, Sallis manages to incorporate both considerations of the nature of identity and provocative engagements with the very form of writing itself — as in this latest book, a novella crowded with a host of ideas that threaten to burst its slim 157 pages.
At the age of eight, Jenny Rowan is abducted and repeatedly brutalised for several years, forced to live in a box beneath the bed of her kidnapper. After her escape she lives an itinerant and desperate life before finding herself in the childcare system. She sues for her emancipation and becomes a legal adult at the age of 16, ultimately working as a production editor for a TV station, her grim past (it seems) firmly behind her. But one night she returns home to find a detective waiting for her, one who appears to know her clandestine story. He tells Jenny he needs help with a woman like herself who has similarly been kidnapped and treated in an appalling fashion. Jenny agrees, but she is to pay a heavy price in psychological terms for her altruism.
Behind this lean and claustrophobic narrative (set in a near future with a backdrop of political unrest), Sallis tackles his grim and topical theme and adds a new dimension to his work: the existential, low-key detachment of such books as Drive and The Killer is Dying is replaced with a fragile but hopeful vision of the strength of the human spirit, whatever it may be subjected to.
If you’ve been nurturing a particular writer at your bosom for years, secure in the knowledge that he or she is known only to the cognoscenti, it’s somewhat difficult to share your favourite when the whole world sits up and takes note. That process is slowly happening for one of the best of American writers. Drive may be the best book for new James Sallis readers to start with, but just a few pages of Others Of My Kind will also demonstrate why this writer is held in such high esteem.
Others Of My Kind by James Sallis
No Exit Press, £7.99