Monday, December 17, 2012

Are you a novelist? No, a character-- Moth By James Sallis

It was midnight, it was raining.
Opening to Moth
by James Sallis
What happens when the detective is also a novelist? 

It is often the case that people involved in some aspect of law enforcement take up writing crime fiction, but as far as I know, James Sallis is the rare writer of crime fiction who has cast a former police officer who is now a novelist as his detective.  If you think about it, literary fiction is so rife with narrators who are would be writers that eventually this trope would seep into genre fiction as well.  

Mr. Sallis's detective, Lew Griffin, came up through the mean streets of New Orleans to become a police officer, then a French literature 'professor' at a local college,  a  'retired' private detective and a published novelist who quotes French authors at length.

I may be a little bit in love with him.

Mr. Sallis's novel Moth begins as a search for the long lost daughter of a dying friend wonders a bit here and there and ends up being a tale of recovery from drug additction and the search for the writer's muse.  While the book continaully risks losing it's way, it  never loses the reader's interest in spite of being a detective story without a murder, really one without a crime to solve at all.

Perhaps becuase the narrator/detective is also a novelist, marvelous bits of writing  pop up throughout Moth.  Here's one example.

Here's what I think in higher flights of fancy.  Once there existed beings, a race, a species (call it what you will) who truly belonged in this world.  Then at some point, for whatever reason, they moved on and we moved into their places.  We go on trying to occupy their places, day after endless day.  But we'll always remain strangers here, all of us.  And for all our efforts, whatever dissimulations we attempt, we'll never quite fit.

Moth has plenty of the witty detective banter so many of us love and have come to expect of a detective novel as well.

While the focus of the novel's plot kept shifting underneath me, from taking care of the dying friend to finding her long lost daughter to helping the daughter find a way out of addiction and off of the streets, throughout Moth the Lew Griffin kept referring to the next novel he would write and to whether or not a particular person or event would become the basis for said novel.  In a way, this plot element became a kind of who-dun-it for me especially when it became clear that the book I was reading was not the book in question.  I would have kept reading Moth without this aspect because I found the whole thing very good, but wanting to find out what would be the basis for the next book Lew would write kept me reading the same way wanting to find out who-dun-it used to.

All of which makes Moth a very unusual piece of crime fiction.  It's about solving a mystery, true, but it's also about creating art, about writing, and a little bit about reading too, since we do get to see Lew at work teaching his course in French literature.  Moth is a book that can be catorgized as crime fiction, but in the end the attempt doesn't quite fit.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Who wouldn't be in love with this guy! I'm always on the lookout for the crime novel that sets itself apart because most of them are the SAME THING OVER AND OVER, just different names and different hacked off body parts. I'm putting it on the list. I guess I'd better buy it soon if I'm doing the double dog dare!

C.B. James said...

I've read two by Sallis so far; I think you'll find he fits the bill of being outside the norm every time. He wrote Drive, you know.

Melanie said...

I liked Drive (the book) so i will see about picking up this one. Thanks for reminding me of this author!