Ghost of a Flea by James Sallis
James Sallis has been sending messages to us in code through his Lew Griffin novels for the past ten years. Messages about himself as a writer, about the writers he reads, about identity and belonging and about all the stories we tell about our life and its story and how that tale intertwines with others and their stories. His trademark ("It is midnight. It is raining."), taken from Beckett's Molloy, is testament to Sallis's intelligence and learning and alludes to what he sees as being most important in his work. Beckett is surely the archetypal author of dissolution, and crime, as a genre, if it is about anything more than mayhem, is about how, when faced with a moral crisis, in front of dissolving certainties, equilibrium is restored. Or not restored. For the best crime writers crime is incidental or emblematic.
In Ghost of a Flea Sallis has written a novel whose relationship to the crime genre is at best tangential and certainly dependent, for such a classification, on his other Griffin novels. Extremely episodic, jumping wildly from one thought to another, Flea's structure echoes Griffin's unfocused state of mind as his relationship with Deborah is quietly ending, his son David goes missing and as pigeons in the local park are poisoned and mutilated. Sallis tests our patience here - his humanism is as touching as it has ever been here, and some of his sentences are incandescent but plotting and narrative are, at best, loose - and Flea is really only to be recommended to those who have followed Griffin's adventures through the preceding four books. For those who do read on a moving finale to the series follows, in the latter half of the book, some quite compelling writing. Sallis's books have only negligibly been about crime, their strength being in Sallis' understanding of the drama of ordinary lives, and with little really to investigate we are asked to look, along with Lew at what really is important, what really matters.