REVIEW: Terrific new crime novels by James Sallis and Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Doug Johnstone hails the intriguing tale of a small-town sheriff forced to investigate the death of her predecessor and the final instalment of the Reykjavik Noir trilogy

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.

Like much of Sallis’s latter work, Sarah Jane asks big questions about how we survive the everyday machinations of life, how we find some kind of connection in a world that continually tries to beat us down. It is profound without ever seeming overwrought or melodramatic, depicting with heart and clarity the lives of ordinary people in impossible situations. All of this in less that 200 pages is just breathtaking. That economy of language is just one thing that our next book has in common.

The key to Sigurðardóttir’s writing is her deep empathy for her characters

Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s Cage is the third and final book in her Reykjavik Noir trilogy.

The previous two novels in the series focused on drug smuggling and financial crimes, but this time round there is a thread of corruption and fraud running through Cage like a fault line.

The book focuses on Agla, about to be released from prison, who gets involved with some very bad businessmen, enlisting the help of former nemesis Maria to get to the bottom of things.

The key to Sigurðardóttir’s writing is her deep empathy for her characters. Like in Sallis’s work, these are ordinary people having to face the vagaries that life throws at them. In this instance, she writes lucidly about the power of corporations, and the ease with which our current societal systems can become brutally corrupted.

In keeping with a lot of Icelandic fiction, Cage is written in a clean, understated style, the author letting the reader put together the emotional beats and plot developments. Smart writing with a strongly beating heart.

Sarah Jane by James Sallis (No Exit, £8.99)

Cage by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, translated by Quentin Bates (Orenda, £8.99)

Illustration: Tom Straw