Willnot by James Sallis – review

"Willnot, the latest from James Sallis, is a dark mystery with a cast of characters that will live long in the memory"

Willnot, James Sallis, No Exit, £7.99
Willow Walk, SJI Holliday, Black & White, £7.99

James Sallis is surely one of the most diverse and skilled writers around. Most famous for his crime novels, particularly Drive which was adapted into a film, the American author has also written umpteen short-story collections, books of essays and poems, musicology and translations, biographies and journalism. In amongst the crime novels there have been exemplary detective series and superb standalone noir tales, all imbued with a tremendous humanity and a skilful economy of language.

Illustration: Dom McKenzie

And his latest is no different. Willnot is set in small-town rural America, and begins like a conventional murder mystery, with the discovery of some bodies in the local woods. But what follows is a sly and subtle look at every aspect of small-town life through the eyes of Lamar Hale, the local GP and surgeon.

Hale is a terrific creation, a compassionate man trying his best in the face of increasing pressure, attempting to balance his work with his home life, along with numerous other moral and emotional dilemmas that get thrown at him.

Chief amongst these is the return to town of Bobby Lowndes, a young war veteran with a troubled past and the skills of a trained killer. The FBI soon turn up in Lowndes’ wake but he disappears from hospital before they can catch up with him, after being shot by an anonymous sniper.

It’s complex and nuanced stuff from Sallis, by turns world-weary and life-affirming

But while there is plot aplenty, and Sallis builds tension and conflict expertly, the real star of Willnot is the way of life the town itself represents, as seen through the eyes of Hale. It’s complex and nuanced stuff from Sallis, by turns world-weary and life-affirming, with a cast of characters that will live long in the memory.

Sallis’ prose is stripped back as usual but there is a deep poetry that lurks beneath the language, a rhythm that beautifully captures the way real people speak and think. And he is a brave writer, refusing here to tie up his story threads, to give the reader any easy answers, challenging us to think again about what it means to be part of a community, part of humanity. James Sallis remains at the very top of his game, and I can’t recommend Willnot highly enough.

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A similar small-town feel flows through our other offer-ing this week, SJI Holliday’s disturbing Willow Walk. The second in a trilogy, it’s set in the fictional East Lothian town of Banktoun and sees local cop Davie Gray once more investigating dark crimes, with an escaped inmate from a local psychiatric hospital on the loose, and a string of deaths linked to drugs.

It’s accomplished and compelling storytelling told from four different narrative points of view, as Davie’s personal life and his police work slowly merge to create a thrilling and creepy climax. Holliday is terrific at evoking the double-edged atmosphere of such places, where everyone knows about each other, good or bad.

Davie’s on-off girlfriend Marie is the real narrative focus here, a woman with plenty of troubles and a very dark past that the author doesn’t shirk away from, making for some squirm-inducing reading. But it’s never gratuitous, and there is real heart and depth in Willow Walk, a compassionate look at the complexities of the ties between friends and family, between lovers and colleagues. Quality stuff.