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The Killer Is Dying by James Sallis: A Book Review

Updated on December 13, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Today we're going to take a look at the crime novel, The Killer Is Dying by James Sallis. This book is mystery novel of sorts. I say 'of sorts' because the 'who' behind the 'whodunnit' has no intention of remaining hidden. The 'who' fully intends to reveal himself and we find him moving, throughout the story, to do just that without the intercession of any clever, puzzle-solving de-mystification of some 'ace' detective.

I usually use the term 'crime' novel to describe the mechanics of a work of fiction in which the issue is NOT 'whodunnit,' but rather, how the perpetrator---who is made known to the reader from the start---or whether he will get away with it. There is a protagonist, who is far from the classic 'hero,' whose activities we become invested in, but not in the usual way that we are expected to be curious about the 'anti-hero.'

You see, there is a hit man, a lifelong contract killer who is on his last assignment. There are two reasons for this: 1) he's old and would like to retire; and 2) he is dying from a terminal disease, which is never specifically disclosed and is of no significance in any event. The thing is: just when he was about to pounce, someone else has hit his target (the intended victim is left alive but critically injured).

The killer, who calls himself Christian, changes his directive. Now he will go about the task of finding out who hit his target, and.... That is the question: Do, what about it?

Will Christian find the would-be assassin? If he does, what does he intend to do about it? Why is he pursuing this? The questions are ambiguously formed, pursued, and resolved. Though, when it comes to the resolution, loose ends are left to dangle.

There are two police detectives, Sayles and Graves. They become involved in the affairin an unusual way: Christian, the old man, dying killer, reaches out to them, anonymously, via the Internet, for help.

There is an eleven-year old boy, who has been abandoned by his parents, left to live in that big old house by himself; and he manages on his own quite well, thank you very much! The thing about this young man is that he is having the dreams of the killer, Christian. The boy is seeing the old man's life through the old man's eyes.

This psychic phenomena is put across is a matter-of-fact, very non-momentous fashion. We are not supposed to make a big deal of it, in and of itself. We are never told why and how the boy is having the killer's dreams. Because this book is not a classic 'thriller' or 'suspense' novel, there is no 'big reveal,' regarding this. We are simply asked to accept this psychic phenomena as a feature of the story without explanation---which was fine with me.

There's something else. It comes to pass that Christian makes the determination that someone 'out there' is, in fact, in search of him, the hit man, Christian, a man who has lived like a ghost for forty years. Somehow (sorry to be so constantly vague, but read the story and you'll understand), there is a connection between the fact that Christian's target has been hit by someone else and the fact that someone 'out there' is looking for him, Christian. Do you follow?

What's more, when we find out who is looking for Christian and why Mr. X is seeking him out, an unsettling implication is aroused. I don't want to give too much of the plot away.


What is this book, The Killer Is Dying, and what is it trying to do?

The novel is only two-hundred-thirty-two pages, extremely short by today's standards; and judging from presumably representative samples I spy at the public library, the average length of his novels is much shorter.

The novel is not a 'thriller.' Its purpose is not to 'keep [us] on the edge of [our] seats,' with 'thrill-a-minute action,' constant, momentous circumstance, and all that good stuff. The novel is told at a somewhat contemplative, stop-and-smell-the-flowers pace.

The book is not a 'suspense' story because there is no element of time-urgency. There is no task that has to be completed within any specific time frame to avert the falling of the sky, or something like that.

As I said, this novel is and is not a 'mystery.' The 'who' of the 'whodunnit,' remains unknown for the present, but the eventuality of his own revelation is not being driven by detection, but by the 'who's' own search for Christian.

I guess what I'm saying is that The Killer Is Dying plays with certain conventions.

One last point

This novel is not about relentless relevance. What do I mean by 'relentless relevance'?

Let me put it this way.

There is a term I use, literary crime fiction. What I mean by that, 'literary crime fiction,' is a crime story, featuring a major crime (usually murder) that is constituted in such a way that, even if you removed the crime, you would still be left with a compelling story.

As for the eleven-year-old, abandoned by his parents (Jimmy is his name), he never has any involvement with the 'plot' of this story save for his dreams. In my opinion, you could remove the dreams, extract his story from this book, extend it, and tell a compelling 'literary' story.

Or, you could focus on Christian's story, remove Sayles and Graves and Jimmy, and write the story about a dying old man assassin looking for the person who hit his target, for ambiguous reasons. One option would be to write it in such a way that Christian and his pursuer never meet up, the pass each other by like 'ships in the night.

Or, you could focus on Sayles and Graves (especially Sayles), removing Christian and Jimmy. Detective Sayles is dealing with something. His wife is slowly dying from an unnamed disease. There is some connection between the fact that and how his wife is leaving this plane of existence and the way this brilliant investigator is going about his job; he's brooding more than ever, death, and stuff like that.

What I'm saying is that, in my opinion, you have, here, three, potential, literary-worthy stories combined in one, if that makes any difference to you.

I'm not sure there is much more that I can say about this novel, but to recommend it heartily, as well as the work of Mr. Sallis in general, for the silky finesse of his prose.

Thank you so much for reading.


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