James Sallis is one of my favourite authors. I came to his work late and, over the last few years, have been slowly working my way through his back catalogue. He is also the most-reviewed author on my blog – with nine reviews where I basically tell you he is brilliant.
It probably had to happen, then, at some point, that I would come across a book that wasn’t and – unfortunately – that day has come. I’ve just finished The Killer Is Dying and – very much like my last review (The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall), I’ve been left more than a little flat.
I am not sure why – the writing style is the same – sparse and to the point in that noir way I love. The characters are just as damaged as in other books, unsure how to live their lives without messing them up but doing the best they can. And the dark setting is there too – this time Pheonix, with the harsh, hot weather almost becoming a character in and off itself at times. Yet, for me – this time – it just didn’t work.
I don’t know if the timing had something to do with it. After The Last of the Greenwoods, I wanted a book that would get me out of the funk I was feeling. I thought a favourite author would do the trick but Sallis’ books are dark and maybe dark wasn’t where I needed to be. More than that though, I just felt like there was one too many main character in the book.
First, there is Christian, the killer who is working what is likely his last job as he’s terminally ill – only someone gets to his victim first. He knows he should walk away but he can’t seem to stop himself trying to figure out what has gone wrong. Then there’s the detective investigating the case, who has troubles of his own in the form of a terminally ill wife (see, very dark – there are lots of people close to dying in this book), and doesn’t seem completely on point when it comes to solving the case. And finally, there is the teenager whose parents have left him and who has been managing to survive without anyone realising thanks to the wonders of the internet. Now, though, his freedom is in danger because he is dreaming about Christian’s life.
The last character is the one I could do without. It just didn’t add anything to the story for me and I found my mind wandering on those chapters. Also, I couldn’t quite get the slightly supernatural element to that in a noir novel. It didn’t seem to fit and kept jarring with me. If he hadn’t been there, this book would have been a better one for me – though perhaps still too dark for where I needed to be reading-wise right now.
Has it put me off Sallis? No, not at all and I don’t want it to put off anyone out there who hasn’t read him. I’d just maybe recommend reading his other books instead – they are brilliant, believe me!
About the book…
A hired killer on his final job, a burned-out detective whose wife is dying slowly and in agony, a young boy abandoned by his parents and living alone by his wits. Three people, solitary and sundered from society.
In what is at one and the same time a coming-of-age novel, a realistic crime novel and a novel of the contemporary Southwest, “The Killer Is Dying” is above all the story of three men of vastly different age and background, and of the shape their lives take against the unforgiving sunlight and sprawl of America’s fifth largest city, Phoenix.
The detective is looking for the killer, Christian, though he doesn’t know that. Christian is trying to find the man who stepped in and took down his target before he had the chance. And the boy, Jimmie, is having the killer’s dreams. While they never meet, through the course of the novel, all find community.
Publisher: No Exit Press
Publication date: 11th May, 2012 (first published 2011)
Number of pages: 240
Genre: Crime, Noir
Rating: 3 / 5
Other books by James Sallis…