American crime author James Sallis is slated to cull a new slew of fans thanks to the upcoming release of the film, Drive , based on a novel of the same name. Sallis is best known for his Lew Griffin series novels, but Sallis’s latest, The Killer is Dying is a stand-alone novel. The story is set in Phoenix, Arizona and focuses on three seemingly very different characters: Christian, a freelance contract killer, Sayles a middle-aged, depressed Phoenix detective, and Jimmie Kostof, a teenager who’s been abandoned by his parents. Ultimately A Killer is Dying is not about the solution of a crime, but the unsolved mysteries of life and the abyss of loneliness, death and despair we all face.
Christian, who advertises his services by placing and responding to ads in various known mercenary magazines, is in Phoenix to kill John Rankin, a pedestrian character who seems unlikely to offend anyone. Christian finds himself wondering why a man like Rankin ends up at the wrong end of paid hit:
How this man could possibly be of such concern as to bring someone to engage his services, Christian can’t imagine–a nondescript office-dweller at a nondescript accounting firm in a featureless city where everything is dun-colored.
None of that is any concern of his. Interesting though that he thinks it.
Christian stalks his prey in order to stage the hit, but someone else gets there first. But there’s a problem; Rankin isn’t dead. He’s only wounded, and with cops sniffing around the crime, Christian should move on but he doesn’t. To complicate matters, Christian, a papertrail “ghost” who has left no traceable evidence of his existence on the planet, is dying, and he knows he has very little time left. So why spend what’s left on the Rankin hit? Is he motivated by professional pride, curiosity, a desire to finish what he started, or is there something deeper going on?
Sayles and his partner, Graves begin investigating the shooting, and in another story thread, Jimmie, a teen abandoned by both of his parents, struggles to survive by trading items over the internet in order to raise a little cash. Jimmie is increasingly drawn to a blog site to read the mysterious comments of someone called Traveler. Jimmie has begun to experience intense and violent dreams–clips from the life of the hired contract killer, Christian:
Jimmie tried to remember if he had ever dreamed as someone else. Others in dreams changed, sure, the walk-ons, the companions, but weren’t people always themselves in their dreams?
We see clips from Christian’s earlier life, a strangely detached childhood and a violent stint in prison. Christian recalls some of the hits he made and the mysteries of the lives he brutally took. Similarly, Sayles recalls some of the crimes he’s covered in his career, the bodies of victims whose lives are violently interrupted and extinguished:
What you wound up remembering, what kept coming back to you, were not the whacked-out, bizarre crimes, the hatchet murders, the double homicides, bunco and bank jobs, but simple things. The look in a father’s eyes when you told him that his son had been killed while buying a Pepsi at the AM/PM on the corner. The trumpet case that had sprung open when its owner got shot in a drive-by, and you stood there noticing the way the bell of the horn was crumpled in on itself. The half-finished castle of building blocks in an abused child’s room. The suicide letter of words and phrases cut and pasted from favorite books, a crazy quilt of fonts and sizes, the books themselves put back in their places on the shelves.
These three characters, the contract killer, the cop and the abandoned teen, physically connect in only the vaguest ways–one character will enter the screen as another leaves, or perhaps one character will pass another with just the barest acknowledgment, and yet the three men–all at different phases of their lives are inexplicably intertwined. Just as Jimmie has Christian’s dreams, there’s the idea of parallel lives crisscrossing through space with occasional moments that overlap. These metaphysical aspects of the novel (the shared dreams, collective unconscious, the comments by Traveler) serve to deepen the book’s sense of mystery and connection between the characters.
The novel goes back and forth between its three main characters. Jimmie struggles with loneliness, Christian digs into the truth behind the Rankin shooting, and Sayles, whose bleak home life includes a dying wife, can’t get the Rankin shooting out of his head. Perhaps Sayles’ fascination with the Rankin case is a much-needed distraction from his personal life, or perhaps he connects with Christian in ways he doesn’t understand.
A great deal of the novel maintains a dreamlike quality when describing the passage of everyday life:
He watched a bus disgorge its load of the last night folk heading home and replace them with those just beginning their day, wondering how many of them might be thinking about their lives , where they’d wound up, where they’d began, the curves and crooks and bland mystery of it all, all these Jonahs.
A bus comes by, one of those segmented doubles that looks like a worm. Space for, what, a hundred people within? With maybe a dozen heads afloat in the windows. Its sides bear banner ads for action movies and portraits of local newscasters with too many teeth. He watches the bus work its cautious way around a corner.
Beautifully written, the novel maintains an almost dream-like pacing, and yet the novel itself is tightly-written–racking in at just 232 pages. Not a word seems to be wasted, and although the book covers some emotionally devastating territory, Sallis’s tale is restrained and eloquent, and yet at the same time strangely disturbing.
Review copy courtesy of publisher.