If ever there was a literary chameleon, it is James Sallis. Born in Helena, Ark., Sallis has variously worked as a fiction editor in London; penned novels, science-fiction, stories and works of literary criticism; written poetry and three books on jazz and blues guitarists; translated a French novel; and written a well-regarded biography of novelist Chester Himes.
But Sallis may be best known for a series of insect-titled mysteries (“The Long-Legged Fly,” “Black Hornet”), featuring the well-read scholar and New Orleans P.I. Lew Griffin. The novels, lauded by critics and readers alike, are distinctive for their elegiac portrait of New Orleans, their numerous literary and musical allusions, their genre-bending exploration of the mystery form and, unforgettably, their characterization of Griffin, who stands as one of the most multidimensional, fully realized protagonists in crime fiction.
The end of the six-novel series, marked by “Ghost of a Flea,” was occasion for much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth among the small but vociferous band of Sallis fans, who feared that a unique voice might be sidelined forever. Those fears have proved unfounded, because Sallis is back in the mystery game with “Cypress Grove,” which features another complex protagonist and a story brimming with Southern atmosphere.
Instead of Griffin, we are introduced to Turner, a white Southerner by birth and a loner by choice, who has exiled himself to a cabin in the backwoods after a series of misfortunes as a Memphis cop and, later, as a convict and psychologist. Turner’s longed-for isolation is shattered by the appearance of the local sheriff, Lonnie Bates, who arrives with a bottle of Wild Turkey and a request that Turner help in the investigation of the murder of Carl Hazelwood, a drifter whose crucified body is found on the outskirts of town, the mayor’s stolen mail stuffed in his pocket.
Bates, a home-grown product of the area who sees himself as the town peacekeeper, paid “to keep track of what’s going on in these parts,” is ill-equipped to investigate such a gruesome and enigmatic crime. Sitting on Turner’s porch, dribbling stew down his shirtfront and knocking back Wild Turkey, Bates sees serenity all around while Turner perceives the underlying violence of nature, where an owl flies past with the “feet and tail of its prey, a rodent of some sort, dangling.”
Turner’s return to small-town society and crime investigation sharpens his powers of observation even further and sparks a reverie that is doled out in tantalizing bits, almost like the sips of Wild Turkey that Turner and Bates share. With vignettes woven into the investigation of Hazelwood’s slaying, the cumulative flashbacks reveal Turner as a reluctant crime fighter whose Vietnam War-honed instincts make him a local, albeit lethal, legend, a man promoted quickly to detective and both revered and avoided by his Memphis police colleagues.
Turner’s adventures in crime fighting -- and the fatal mistakes that led him to prison and beyond -- are related in gems of short, evocative prose reminiscent of the early crime fiction of Himes. Sallis uses this extended back story to build a level of suspense about Turner’s past that, while fascinating, threatens at times to overtake the current investigation.
Yet the steady accretion of details as Turner goes about his newfound work -- bantering with the part-time coroner, interviewing witnesses, listening to a blues singer at a roadside club, observing Hazelwood’s nontraditional family -- provides its own satisfactions, not unlike those Turner experiences in observing nature at his cabin or in his tentative connection with Val Bjorn, an earthy state’s attorney he meets " ... alone under the stars and pecan trees, personal histories tucked tight against our hearts as though to still or quieten them.”
Personal histories -- Turner’s and the townspeople’s, the victim’s and the suspects’ -- are eventually revealed, the revelations serving to release old burdens while deepening their mystery. Sallis’ personal history, too, suffuses “Cypress Grove” -- his far-ranging interests in everything from sci-fi films to the blues enlivening and strengthening a mystery that demands to be savored. Although welcome news to Sallis’ coterie of loyalists, “Cypress Grove” should attract an even broader audience for the author’s visually tantalizing, astute observations on crime and the human condition.
When Turner meets Sheriff Bates and his deputy, he remarks: “The last thing I’d wanted was ever again to be part of an investigation, to have to go rummaging through other people’s lives, messes and misdemeanors, other people’s madnesses, other people’s minds.” Lucky for us that Turner, and Sallis, have rejoined the world of crime investigation.