There is no one I would rather read on the subject of noir than James Sallis, his enthusiasm for the the topic shines out in his essays. Sallis has an academic interest in crime fiction and an insight as a writer that doesn’t just make him interesting but also important. This is a collection of long essays, book introductions and reviews that are highly entertaining, informative and relevant.
Although the remit of this book, actually two books combined (explanation to follow), is to concentrate on the work of specific authors, the overall goes to the heart of what noir actually is. Sallis takes us through the American origins, the way Europe embraced noir and then began to master the form and create some of the most important works in the genre. As I said, there are two books here, the first is Difficult Lives, three long essays on writers of the 1950s: Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Chester Himes. Difficult Lives was previously published and has been added to the new compilation Hitching Rides, it gives context and contrast, as well as being fascinating in its own right. Hitching Rides is a collection of essays, book introductions and reviews drawn from more contemporary sources. They deal with some of the most important writers in the noir genre.
Even if you’re not a fan, you may know Sallis from the film adaptation of his novel Drive (2005) (there was also a sequel to that novel, Driven, seven years later). Sallis has been at this game for a long time though and his body of work is truly impressive. He is the author of one of the most startlingly original series of noir crime novels to come out of the US. The Lew Griffin PI novels are set in New Orleans (six novels). These novels channel the spirit of the French writers who transformed the genre; they are hot and sticky, haunted by the past, booze sodden, blues infused, shattered by racial conflict and the dark side of human nature. You want to know Sallis’ credentials read The Long Legged Fly (1992). If noir is your bag I don’t think you will stop there, then there is the John Turner series (three novels from 2003-2007), several stand alone novels including the superb spy story, Death Will Have Your Eyes, also, collections of short stories, essays, and an insightful biography of Chester Himes, not to mentions his poetry and translations from French literature.
I’ve read several of the authors and the books referred to in this collection, which means I have read some of these pieces before and yet I still felt the rush of discovering something new or regaining that insight that Sallis delivers. In Hitching Rides there are two essays on Boris Vian, the first deals with his novel I Spit on Your Graves (p. 83). I mention it because this essay introduced me to Vian and the remarkable story of the publication of the novel. Sometimes introductions are more a matter of form than anything else but Sallis unpacks an extraordinary tale in such a way that I was better prepared to read the novel, got more out of it and understood just how much of an impact Vian had on crime writing. The novel was memorable but so was Sallis’ essay, the book would be worth it for this alone.
It’s striking how many of the authors here are among my favourites too; Jean Patrick Manchette, Derek Raymond, Boris Vian, Paco Taibo, I could go on. It’s also sad to read how many came to an untimely and tragic end (Goodis, Vian, Raymond), but that is a little digression. While his analysis in sharp, incisive and original it is also warm, enjoyable and enthusiastic. There is still something of the boyhood love of crime stories, a little bit of awe (not blinkered).
Perversely, I started with Hitching Rides. In his first essay, Sallis’ describes the tingling feeling he experienced when he came across a novel by Derek Raymond, I was Dora Suarez (for me it was The Devil’s Home on Leave). It must get you like that sometimes too? The moment when you realise the book you are reading is special, may even alter your world view. Raymond was dead by the time I found one of his novel in an old book sale but I was tingling too at the raw originality of him. Now Sallis has me on side but what does he actually tell us about Raymond? That he was a rare beast, a genius, a genre defining writing. Sallis’ admits to both being in awe and totally changed as a reader by Raymond. As Sallis notes Raymond changed British crime writing, creating the British black novel (noir), breathing new life into a form that was dying under the weight of unoriginal and plodding police procedurals. He did for the British crime novel what Manchette did for the French with the creation of the neo-noir-polar. Sallis explain that Raymond trawls the depths of the human soul for his inspiration. That his writing isn’t so much about solving a case as it is about getting to known the victim and the killer. Allowing the reader to become, “the predator and the prey.” Raymond is bleak, grotesque, gruesome (to the point it disturbed him), despairing. His characters are the underclass, the alcoholics, the dispossessed, the downtrodden, the rejects. There is no why here but:
“Derek Raymond’s – strong stuff, graphic, unsettling, even repugnant – can bring us in one hand that ‘pitiless rain’ and in the other a shelter against it.”
It’s as clear an analysis as you could hope to find in a few short pages of introduction to a novel.
His portrayal of Patricia Highsmith gets under the skin with the same ease. Here we have the writer as social misanthrope, a true loner. In her work she makes an art form out of stubbornness, contrariness, they become “coin of the realm.” Highsmith made no concessions to the market, often baffling readers and critics but finding a bolthole in Europe, where she was better understood. Her stories often involve characters who insinuate or bully their way into others lives, Strangers on a Train for example, “…tapped into genre energies, but she inflamed also bare-rubbed spots of the American soul others had agreed to leave alone.” A transgressive novelist, maybe Highsmith was the ultimate realist.
Sallis also writes about James Lee Burke, Paco Taibo, Jim Thompson, Chester Himes, George Pelicanos, Gerald Kersh, Charles Willeford and Shirley Jackson. One last comment on this volume. Sallis’ talks about Jean-Patrick Manchette and the reinvention of the French crime novel, the neo-polar. This essay not only firmly established the value of Manchette in French crime writing but also relates that to the impact on American and British writing and the changes in the noir genre. It gives you a view of the bigger picture.
Difficult Lives looks at the paperback phenomenon and, as I have said, three writers in particular. These are longer essays. As well as relating something of the lives of the authors, their obsessions, their tragedy and their inspiration, Sallis also analyses their work and gives us a feel for their writing. These are powerful essays, in the case of Chester Himes it actually led Sallis to write a full biography. My favourite is the story of David Goodis, not a happy story, a story that is perhaps the least familiar but forget the man for a moment. I now understand a lot better how important Goodis is to the noir story.
Erudite and informative these essays may be, but they are also crafted with love. Love of an art form that I share. If noir is your Driver, this is for you.
Paul Burke 5/4
Difficult Lives, Hitching Rides by James Sallis
No Exit Press 9780857302564 pbk Nov 2018