Salt River by James Sallis

21109505As Salt River begins, two years have passed since Turner’s amour, Val Bjorn, was shot as they sat together on the porch of his cabin. Sometimes you just have to see how much music you can make with what you have left, Val had told him, a mantra for picking up the pieces around her death, not sure how much he or the town has left. Then the sheriff’s long-lost son comes plowing down Main Street into City Hall in what appears to be a stolen car. And waiting at Turner’s cabin is his good friend, Eldon Brown, Val’s banjo on the back of his motorcycle so that it looks as though he has two heads. “They think I killed someone,” he says. Turner asks: “Did you?” And Eldon responds: “I don’t know.” Haunted by his own ghosts, Turner nonetheless goes in search of a truth he’s not sure he can live with.

There are few authors I like more than James Sallis and over the last couple of years, in order to catch-up with his back catalogue, there are probably no authors I have read more. You would think I would get bored, yet I really can’t get enough. I love his simple yet complex writing style – yes, you can have both – he uses few words but each says so much and he has a beautiful turn of phrase.  As Sallis says in the book…

Two schools of thought. One has it we’re best off using simple words, plain words. That fancier ones only serve to obscure meaning –wrap it in swaddling clothes. Other side says that takes everything down to the lowest common denominator, that thought is complex and if you want to get close to what’s really meant you have to choose words carefully, words that catch up gradations, nuances …’

His characters are complex too, including Turner, who is central to this trilogy of books – with Salt River being the last. Getting to know Turner has been like peeling an onion as layer on layer reveals more stories and sadness. Sadness is how I felt reading this book too because Turner hasn’t gotten over the murder of his girlfriend Val two years ago. He is frozen in time and place.

I expected him to move again, not just go through the motions, when Eldon – his and Val’s old friend – turns up and says he might have killed someone. Or when the former sherfiff’s estranged son announces his arrival back in town by driving into the wall of the sherrif’s office. The old Turner would have tracked people down, thrown some punches, set the world to rights. This Tuner let the world right itself.

And it did, right itself, in ways that were perfectly fitting if not action packed. But sometimes you don’t need action, just a really well written story with characters you have come to care about in the middle of it. I am sad to say goodbye to Turner but it seems right to do so.  This book was a fitting end to his story and I loved it.



    • Thank you. I really just love the pared back style and the fact he doesn’t judge his characters. I can’t recommend him enough, though I know not everyone is into noir fiction (which I think is the genre)


  1. […] Salt River by James Sallis, a fitting end to a great trilogy staring a flawed central character – Turner – who I couldn’t help but like more than a little as he tried to make his way through the world that threw a lot of rubbish his way. […]


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