Identity and doubt

 

 

Eye of the Cricket, by James Sallis (No Exit Press)

The last 10 years or so has seen the revival of the American crime novel. The quality and weight of recent writing bears comparison with the days of Chandler and Hammett. The notion that such a popular form can be a vehicle for serious and even radical ideas about society is at the heart of the work of writers like Walter Mosley and Sara Paretsky. At the dark and dangerous end of the pool there are the stunning novels of the self-styled 'mad dog' of American crime, James Ellroy.

James Sallis deserves to be considered in the same company. Eye of the Cricket is the fourth in his series of Lew Griffin novels. Griffin is a black intellectual, a teacher of French and Literature and a writer of crime novels.

The book opens with Griffin responding, half in fear, half in hope, to the latest lead in the search for his son who disappeared without trace years earlier. We are not allowed to settle on this plotline too long before he becomes involved in two further searches - for Shon Delaney, the son of a neighbour, and Danny, son of his long-time police friend Don Walsh.

These stories are interwoven skilfully but lazily against the background of a cold naturalistic portrait of New Orleans. As a piece of noir writing it presses all the right buttons. It is a gripping, engaging page-turner.

In substance, however, this is more than a crime novel, and Sallis' intentions go beyond suspense. If there is a rational core to post-modernism then maybe it's possible to find it in novels like this. The hero lives in a world where there are many realities, many truths. It isn't that there is no 'reality', but Sallis does insist that it can only be found by piecing together the fragments, seeing it from all sides.

The crime novel, of course, lends itself to this approach without having to pay the price in coherence or purpose. At its best it is a genre where solutions are sought but the search is complex, broken, strewn with blind alleys, wild-goose chases and never more than partially successful. Sallis makes great use of these liberties to entice us into his world of ideas and doubt.

The hero of his book, for example, also writes crime novels in which the protagonist is Lew Griffin. The lead to Griffin's son turns out to be a down-and-out who claims to be the famous writer Lew Griffin and can support it with a faultless grasp of the plotlines of his books. There is much cross-referencing, not only to crime writing, but to literature in general, and it never seems forced, given Griffin's 'day-job'.

The references to writers like Joyce and Beckett reflect the real source of Sallis' inspiration. The story is less a search for David Griffin and much more a search for self, a study of identity. The form, however, and the pace and rhythm required of good crime writing, make the whole enterprise accessible and entertaining. The narrative drive isn't lost because Sallis is raising ideas, and yet you are involved in the reflection as well as the search.

The question of identity, and indeed identity politics' clearly form part of James Sallis' concerns. His central character is black, and racism is part of the fabric of the society in which he moves, sometimes openly discussed, more often taken as read. Lew Griffin recalls at one point in the novel how it came to him with the force of revelation that America's racial problem has never been so much racial as fundamentally (in this supposedly classless society) a class problem. It is hard to avoid comparisons with Walter Mosley's reluctant hero Easy Rawlins.

All this has led to the assumption that Sallis himself is black, whereas he is, in fact, a middle-aged white. In a recent interview he was assertive about this: 'To hold that a middle-class, middle-aged white man can only write about middle-aged, middle-class white men certainly limits the prospect for any kind of interesting writing... to say that I can't write from the point of view of a black man or a woman is absurd: that's what I do. I may not write well but I can surely try'.

He tries, and all in all he succeeds. Enough at any rate to make me want to read the earlier Lew Griffin novels.

Patrick Murphy