A review of Cripple Creek by James Sallis

Reviewed by Paul Kane

James Sallis
Cripple Creek
No Exit Press
May 2007

Cripple Creek is a crime novel with a warm-hearted, compassionate vibe at its core. James Sallis’ cop is Turner and he’s working now in a small town in the South, living in a community where everybody knows everybody else (and everybody else’s business). He is among well-wishers, has friends and family about him, and even has a possum as a pet. Sallis’ elegant, efficacious prose is a delight, especially the laid-back passages – adorned with sympathy, wit and humour – that allow these folks to reveal themselves. There is a great emphasis on character and place here, and not just on one or a few protagonists; Turner is hardly a loner Private Investigator, he exists in a network of human relationships. But we soon discover that violence can occur here too.

The plot concerns a stash of stolen money, a jailbreak, a vendetta and its victims. There are echoes of crime fiction of the past – one wonderful minor character, Doc Oldham, could have stepped off the pages of at least two William Riley Burnett novels – and a gamut of genre pleasures. The greatest pleasure, though, is in how the story unfolds. It is an exercise in enchantment.

We follow Turner’s memories, his recounting of past cases (Turner had previously been a therapist as well as a city cop), no matter how they meander. These add depth to his character and they also create complex, sometimes labyrinthine, timeshifts that are sure to delight or challenge the reader (I’d say it is Chapters 2 and 8 that are particularly likely to throw you). The way in which Sallis uses the notion of a “case” (the staple of the police procedural) to place smaller stories within his main story is instructive. Turner (as cop or therapist) is not directly involved in the happenings or events of these discrete, episodic narratives, except as a witness; and so they seem like digressions. Mark it: they are not, they belong. Better to call them sidelong glances. Or they are like the stratospheric pressures that cumulatively create the atmosphere, the constituent elements that (together) make up a mosaic. And there are connections between them: most often these cases are about people who have caused or perpetrated or must survive terrible crimes. As they are recounted, a sense of foreboding ineluctably builds.

It is only at the heartbreaking end that you realize how well the author has presaged and set it up: Turner’s seemingly inconsequential inability to locate a line of poetry (“Where had I read the broken bottles our lives are?”, he wonders on one occasion); the creaking of an old chair that awakens him from sleep; in fact, nearly all of Turner’s recounted cases, with their myriad minute episodes, herald the tragedy that will close the book. Cripple Creek is a novel with the engine of a poem, an ode to loss.

About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com