Brian Caskey is a bit of a mess. A former cop, he drinks too much, smokes too much, has mental health problems, and has got himself involved in something he probably shouldn’t have gotten himself involved in.
He is also a writer of 1940’s crime fiction, with a main character who drinks too much, smokes too much and has got himself involved in something he probably shouldn’t have.
Both Brian and his detective live in Northern Ireland, a place where people seem to have a bit of an edge to them but also don’t take life too seriously unless they have to. Neither seem to have had much luck in life, living alone and on the edge of the “real world”
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.
A year after the events in Cypress Grove, life for Tuner – the main character – is pretty good. He is settled, with a job as a deputy and a girlfriend (Val) who seems the perfect fit for him, a woman who wants – need – her own space as much as he does. It isn’t necessarily where he thought he would be but it seems like a good place to end up for someone who has been a policeman, convict, and psychiatrist among other things. He life is simple and he is accepted for who he is in the small southern town he has landed in.
Then, a young man is arrested for drunk driving. He has close to a quarter of a million dollars in his bag in the boot of his car. Not what you would expect to find…and neither is the jailbreak that follows, leaving the sheriff seriously injured. The trail leads Turner back to Memphis, where he was a cop and a killer, not somewhere he wants to be. Life, though, is rarely what he wants and that’s the case in Cripple Creek where things go from bad to worse for Turner.
Having read more than a few James Sallis books this isn’t a surprise. His stories tend to be quite dark, full of troubled characters and broken lives. Yet, generally, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t find that here and I felt a little sad at the end as a result. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it though, I did, and I grew to like Turner as a character more than I already did. No matter how many things he might have done, in his heart he is a good person and I’d want him on my side in a fight. He is true to himself and others and his back story, woven through the book in short chapters, helps explain why he is who he is.
This way of telling his story is the same in Cypress Grove, which I think it would help to read first but isn’t absolutely necessary, and it’s one I like – as is Sallis’ sparse writing style and way of setting the scene and painting a picture of a world I don’t really know at all. Still, I feel I know Turner’s south – the good, the bad, and the gritty. I’m not sure it’s a place I would want to live but I do want to keep reading about it…
When I posted my Tuesday Intro for this book, I mentioned that I was a little concerned because it was already one of my favourite films…a film I would say anecdotally is one people love or hate. I loved it from the first five minutes and was worried that, despite James Sallis being one of my favourite authors, I wouldn’t therefore love the book.
In the film Driver (he has no other name) is played by Ryan Gosling and wears a gold bomber jacket. He is also a man of few words and a very striking character. You spend a lot of time trying to figure out what he’s thinking. In the book, you find out. Or, at the very least, get to know his back story so you can understand a little why he is who he is. Given where he’s come from, it is no surprise he is who he is and that he struggles to form – for want of a better word – normal relationships. Driver is nomadic. He doesn’t make friends easily. When he does, he’s incredibly loyal.
The other thing about Driver is (surprise), he drives. He is a stuntman and a getaway driver. There isn’t any better. It also turns out he is vengeful when he is double crossed in a heist gone wrong and his friend dies in the process. Vengeful and determined to pay back everyone involved, meaning Drive is quite a dark and violent book. It isn’t especially gory or bloody though so it worked for me.
Despite my original fears, and once I stopped picturing Ryan Gosling and his gold jacket, I was completely drawn in and wanted Driver to get his revenge. I spent the second half of the book worried he would come to a sticky end himself (I won’t say if he did or not), my writing speeding up as I read. Thankfully I didn’t have too long to wait to find out as this is a short book, a novella vs. a novel.
It is, however, a book that packs punch and a lot in. It is one of the things I love about James Sallis and I wasn’t disappointed to find the same here. He manages to say a lot with few words and over a few pages. Some chapters were only a page or so long. Yet, nothing felt wasted. Every word seemed to be needed. Every character seemed to be saying something in every line they spoke. This might not suit everyone but it suits me. I love this style of writing. The simplicity and the starkness. And I loved this book. Highly recommended.