Cripple Creek

by James Sallis

Published by Walker & Company

192 pages, 2006

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A Life in Retreat

Reviewed by Stephen Miller


James Sallis is a damned deceptive writer. Best known for his Lew Griffin private eye sextet, which began in 1992 with The Long-Legged Fly and ended in 2001 with Ghost of a Flea, along with last year's noir hit Drive, it's easy to pick up one of his books and think you're in for an easy time of it. The books tend to be thin, often coming in under 200 pages long. It's tempting to think that a James Sallis work can be tossed off in a sitting or two, maybe while waiting for a flight connection. But I'm here to tell you, friends, if you consume one of these novels on a beach somewhere or while half-watching television, you'll need to read it all over again. Appreciating Sallis properly means occasionally putting the book down and thinking about what you've just experienced.

Cripple Creek, his newest, is no exception to the "read James Sallis carefully" rule. A sequel to 2003's Cypress Grove, it features John Turner, an ex-cop, ex-psychotherapist and ex-con. In the earlier book, while escaping the wreckage of his former life, Turner suddenly found himself in a small backwater town, spitting distance from his old stomping grounds in Memphis, Tennessee. A year or so on from the end of that tale, he's now a deputy sheriff in Cypress Grove, "temporarily" filling in while the regular sheriff, Don Lee, recovers from a gunshot wound -- a convalescence that is slowly turning toward permanence. While Turner craves the quiet and solitude of his country surroundings, he has also managed to find a shared relationship with Val Bjorn, a public defender who slowly rehabilitates Turner's life as she continues working on her ramshackle home in the Tennessee hills. But then one morning, the acting sheriff is ambushed by professional enforcer types who proceed to spring the town's sole prisoner, Judd Kurtz, a young musclehead arrested the night before on a traffic violation that escalated into resisting arrest -- and which led to the discovery of $200,000 dollars in the trunk of Kurtz's Mustang. Determined to retrieve the fugitive, Turner heads off to Memphis, where Kurtz and his liberators are thought to be, only to find that the more he pursues his quarry, the more he rattles the cages of organized crime in that Mississippi River town. It seems that Kurtz is the nephew of one of Memphis' mobsters, a discovery that leads to a classic bit of dialogue between Turner and a former colleague in the local police department:

"Stan, have any idea where we can find this supposed nephew?"

"You really been away that long, Turner? You think we're gonna find this guy? What, he ripped off one of the bosses, then got himself arrested in the boondocks, made them send in the thick-necks? Those sound like career moves to you? Nephew or not, he's under Mud Island by now."

Yet, find the boss/uncle Turner most certainly does, and when the shooting ends, he realizes that the woman who's saved his life is also one he'd been avoiding for years -- his daughter, ex-Seattle cop Sandra "J.T." Burke. On vacation and hungry to learn more about her past, J.T. has tracked her father down and soon envelops him into her life. But any hope of an idyllic reunion goes by the wayside, when it becomes clear that the mobsters from Memphis are heading back into the boondocks to extract some revenge.

While Sallis certainly knows how to ratchet up the action with grace and subtlety, he truly excels at moments of beautiful introspection. Early in the book, Turner and Val are bemoaning her fractured emotions in representing a husband whose battle with his wife risks damaging their teenage daughter. Turner can relate.

I was remembering Sally Gene, a social worker back in Memphis. The whole thing kind of grew, Sally Gene told me, this whole system of child protection and the laws supporting it -- the way people'll take a trailer and keep adding onto it, a porch here, a spare room. No real planning. So half of it's about to fall down around you, none of the doors close, stuff flies in and out of the windows at will. You can use that -- but it can also use you. It can use you right up.

It's frequent trenchant observations such as that, and the images they create, that make you raise your eyes off the printed page in silent admiration.

There's violence in Cripple Creek; but readers looking for non-stop gunplay and paint-by-numbers plotting are likely to be disappointed by this book, as they would be by much of Sallis' work. Last year's Drive, for instance, which featured a narrator known simply as "Driver," who makes his living as a Hollywood stunt driver and robbery getaway specialist, introduces action abruptly and sparingly. Sallis clearly realizes that the impact of violence on his characters stems not only from the suddenness of it all, but from the sometimes ghastly beauty of bloodshed. Speaking of an acquaintance from his years in Memphis, Turner tells us about an assault on a criminal defense lawyer, Herb Danziger:

He'd put in thirty-some years making certain that big rich corporations got bigger and richer, then one day ("No crisis of conscience, I was just bored out of my mind") he gave it up and started taking on, in both senses of the phrase, the hard cases. Another six years of that before an unappeased client stepped out of the doorway of Danzinger's apartment house one evening as he returned home. Damnedest thing you ever saw, the paramedic who responded said. We get there and this guy is sitting on the sidewalk with his back against the wall and his legs out straight in front of him. There's the handle of a hunting knife sticking out of his head like he has a horn, you know? And he's singing "Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Out Tonight."

Cripple Creek contains frequent references to music, and it's no secret that Sallis is both a musician and an astute music critic. Whereas some crime-fiction writers, in a misguided attempt to be more literary, tend to bombast the reader, Wagner-like, Sallis reminds me more of Miles Davis -- a remarkably articulate craftsman who says only what needs to be said, and lets the reader/listener fill in the blanks. It can be said of Cripple Creek that it provokes revelatory moments where you realize you've been told something true and told it well.

Go visit Cripple Creek. Just don't be in a hurry to leave. | April 2006

Stephen Miller has worked as a columnist for Mystery News since 1999, writing about new authors. He lives in Hilliard, Ohio.