Regular readers of my writing here will know I’m a very firm believer that the best crime fiction can do anything that other genres can do, often better. This week we have two terrific crime novels that demonstrate that breadth and scope perfectly.
First up is Sarah Jane by veteran American author James Sallis. Sallis is something of a hidden gem of crime writing, a writer’s writer who garners effusive praise from his contemporaries but perhaps doesn’t get the commercial recognition his books deserve.
Although he has written widely across the genre (and others) over decades, Sallis’s recent work has focused in on wonderful small town American character studies, books that combine an existential enquiry into the nature of life with a wonderfully rounded emotional pull on the reader.
Sallis’s plotting is a masterclass in sleight of hand, misdirecting the reader with a glance and a nod
Sarah Jane is the latest distillation of those ideas, and it is utterly wonderful from start to finish. The book focuses on Sarah Jane Pullman, a woman with a lifetime of experience behind her, who finds herself, to her own surprise, the de facto sheriff in Farr, a town in the American southwest. She has to deal with all the town’s everyday woes, as well as investigating the disappearance of her predecessor as sheriff.
At this stage in his career, Sallis’s plotting is a masterclass in sleight of hand, misdirecting the reader with a glance and a nod, throwing seemingly unconnected elements at the page that somehow, seamlessly, weave together perfectly. It takes immense skill to make writing seem this effortless.
But while the plot ticks along impeccably this is really a beautiful, thoughtful character study. Sarah Jane has a complicated past, raised on a chicken farm, a teenage runaway, a court-ordered stint in the army, highs and lows and everything in between.