Ellroy, Pelecanos, Coben, Burke – James Sallis would not be out of place in that kind of company, he is one of the most influential and respected modern American crime writers. His new novel, Sarah Jane, demonstrates why that’s so. Sallis always does his own thing, in 190 taut pages, episodic bursts, Sallis tells Sarah Jane’s story with more depth and originality than most authors could get into an epic. Short, plain prose passages that are anything but flat echo the landscape and the people who inhabit the pages, it’s almost poetry. Intriguingly, this is not just the story of Sarah Jane Pullman the cop, but how she became a cop. A girl from a derailed background, a young woman with a chaotic, nomadic lifestyle haunted by secrets and buried memory.

Sarah Jane is steeped in the author’s love of literature and in particular American crime fiction and yet, as always, Sallis has a way of coming at a story from a different angle, getting under the skin of his characters and moving the genre forward. Each passage propels the story forward but also rounds out Sarah Jane’s character. There are sign posts for where she is heading, even though life gets in the way and she has no idea herself, the shape of the woman who becomes a cop emerges. Not a word too many and none that can be dispensed with and that’s a rare skill even for a seasoned, skilled writer. Sarah Jane is an intelligent novel from one of the most creative crime writers currently working. Sallis is concerned with the human condition and this novel has pathos, good and bad fortune, loss and survival, all delivered with heart.

Sarah Jane’s story, the recreation of the randomness of life, is beautifully judged. She doesn’t have a clear path, a marked out route in life, and yet in the chaos we see the logic of how she becomes a cop, a good one, and how she sees the job.

“My name is PRETTY but I’m not. Haven’t been, won’t be. And that’s not really my name, either, just what Daddy calls me. Beauty’s only skin deep, he used to say, so when I was six I scratched my arm looking for it. Scar’s still there. And I guess it’s like everyone saying if you dig deep enough you’ll find China. All I got from that was blisters.”

That’s our introduction to Sarah Jane, reflecting on growing up (aka Junior, SJ and Squeaky). Sarah was brought up in a decaying house in Selmer on the Tennessee-Alabama border, when she left home her father moved into a caravan in the yard. Sarah’s mother wasn’t around much after her tenth birthday, she upped and left the cinema one night leaving Sarah Jane and her brother Darnell to beg a bus ride home to their father. Next day talking to her Dad:

I told him she’d be back.
‘I expect she will.’ He took a sip, added more sugar. ‘Life’s not the pizza place, Pretty. It don’t deliver.’

At seventeen Sarah Jane left Selmer, drifting north, fetching up somewhere near St. Louis, and living in a kind of commune, the cracker barn. She meets Gregory, her first lover, an older man, part guru, part fantasist, with a maybe kind of past, there are drugs, she makes a new friend, Shawna from Scottsdale, Arizona:

‘What I knew about Arizona came down to cactus and cowboys and hot, which years later turned out pretty much it.’

Sarah winds up in trouble with the law, the court appointed lawyer is useless and she is too honest for her own good. Sarah admits to knowing what her ‘peers’ were up to and that makes her guilty right there. Judge Fusco seems more convinced her age and her contrition are mitigation than she is herself, he says she deserved a choice: army or jail?

She chooses army. Sarah Jane in a jeep, in the desert, Oscar by her side, they stop the vehicle and search the horizon looking for movement:

‘Oscar with less than an hour to live.’

We learn about the chaos in her life but also the telling things that get her where she’s going. Sarah tells us about her father sorting out the King boys when they killed Jenny Siler’s dog. Is that a lesson in right and wrong?

What happened to Oscar, to Sarah, before she was rescued by a random patrol? Then there’s the marriage to Bullhead, a cop, a bad cop, a bully. When Sarah Jane becomes a cop she has to trace her predecessor and unravel a hidden life, dealing with school protests but also murder and confronting her own past (memory):

‘ALL STORIES ARE GHOST STORIES, about things lost, people, memories, home, passion, youth, about things struggling to be seen, to be accepted, by the Living.’

A philosophical novel, part fictional bio, part crime story, all noir, an individual tale that seems to illuminate so much about life.

James Sallis is the author of several crime novels including Drive and The Long Legged Fly. His recent collection of essays Difficult Lives, Hitching Rides was reviewed on NB last year.

Paul Burke 4/4

Sarah Jane by James Sallis
No Exit Press 9780857303240 pbk Oct 2019