The Killer is Dying by James Sallis

2 Mins read

Written by James Sallis — Although this book is set in Pheonix, Arizona, it’s by no means hot and fiesty crime fiction. There are no chases, gunfights or shadowy figures jumping out from behind doors to bash the hero in the face. In fact, the book barely even has a hero. Perhaps you are hoping at this stage that I’m going to tell you that it’s a sober police procedural, but again that can’t be said. If anything, it’s more of a police philosophical.

The Killer is Dying is dominated by the ruminations and dreams of its three main characters as they come up with their own ways of explaining the world they inhabit. First up there’s Christian – no surname – who is a hitman. Throughout his career as a killer for hire he’s kept an extremely low profile, guided by his own rigorous systems and thought patterns. Despite this, someone got to his latest mark before he did, and this upsets the normally cold-blooded and unemotional Vietnam vet. Or, it could have something to do with the fact that after 40 years of taking lives, he’s slowly dying of a disease himself.

As Christian’s life begins to unravel, both physically and metaphysically, his dreams become bizarre and filled with incongruous details which may, or may not, have some meaning. Even more weird is the fact that his dreams are also being experienced by a teenage boy called Jimmy who’s been abandoned by his dysfunctional parents in a Phoenix suburb. Jimmy’s existence revolves around taking care of himself, trading in old toys and vintage tools online, and trying to conceal the fact that his parents are gone from the neighbours. The bizarre dreams of the dying killer only make his existence even more peculiar.

Then there’s Sayles, an intuitive detective whose good at his job but has no clues whatsoever to follow up in the case of a non-fatal shooting of an accountant. The bean counter was actually Christian’s target and in his consternation over the fact that someone else got to his hit first, the assassin takes the unusual step of reaching out to Sayles (albeit in a very oblique way). The detective is intrigued by this but is himself distracted by the fact that his wife is also dying from a painful disease, and in her struggle has rejected him.

As things progress, Sayles, Christian and Jimmy reflect on all kinds of things – from the beauty of nature to the frailty of human existence and on to the many meaningless idioms parents pass on to their children. Sallis has a knack for stepping unfalteringly between his story and the observations and memories of his characters. Some say his writing is pared-down but while it’s not wordy his descriptions of early mornings and hot, dry evenings in Phoenix generate a convincing atmosphere. Partly, it seems to be a critique of a Phoenix community now in decline. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Don DeLillo’s Underworld.

Some fans of our genre gnash their teeth at the word ‘literary’. This book probably won’t satisfy those wanting action, excitement and a clear resolution at the end. But it is wonderful writing that stitches a complex picture of America’s south west, with the story of a killer and a cop as part of that tapestry. Yes, it’s literary. The paperback version comes out next month, but at the moment it’s on Kindle at £2.80.

No Exit

CFL Rating: 4 stars

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