The Killer is Dying by James Sallis: This is that rare beast – a piece of literary crime fiction. It’s not really a thriller. Hell, it’s not really even crime fiction. To be honest, I’m not really sure how you can classify it. It doesn’t contain a tightly honed plot – its structure is fairly loose; what little action there is occurs in the margins – almost outside the page; and there’s more ambiguity than resolution. Its ambitions extend beyond just entertaining the reader, particularly as a lot of its action (such as it is), themes and meanings seem to appear in the lines between the text.
An ageing killer with a terminal illness tries to find out who shot his target and why; a middle-aged cop with a dying wife investigates the shooting and deals with his own problems; a teenage boy, abandoned by his parents and left to fend for himself, is sharing the dying killer’s dreams.
Much as I like Sallis (which is a lot), I’m not sure how much I liked TKiD. As ever with Sallis it’s beautifully rendered in spare prose and the sections involving the killer and the cop are great. The problem is the almost magical realist section involving Jimmie, the boy. I didn’t buy the fact that he was having the killer’s dreams and dramatically I just didn’t get the point of having him in the story. I can understand and appreciate that community and how we relate to one another is one of the novel’s many themes, but in a sense I thought this theme was covered just as clearly in the sections involving Christian, the killer, and Sayles, the cop. In fact, I wonder what this novel would have been like as a two-hander (focussing on the killer and the cop) rather than a three-hander? Would it be better? Would it be worse? Who knows!
Don’t get me wrong, there’s much to recommend here. It’s beautifully written, thematically dense and multi-layered, and its characters are alive in a way that very few writers can achieve, but I just didn’t buy the chapters involving Jimmie, which seriously curtailed my enjoyment. However, I think maybe I need to go back to this again at a later date and re-read it. Maybe I missed something – as stated earlier a lot of stuff goes on between the lines – but I think I’d have to give it a slower, more considered read away from distractions.
Despite my serious reservations about some of it, The Killer is Dying is well worth a read, particularly for fans of Sallis.