James Sallis, ‘The Long-Legged Fly’ (1992)

In the darkness things always go away from you. Memory holds you down while regret and sorrow kick hell out of you.’

long legged flyThe Long Legged Fly is the first book in the Lew Griffin series; and whilst they’re often described as private detective novels, don’t come to them if you’re after a traditional investigation. Go elsewhere. It’s more accurate to call the series a six-volume biography, one in which the real missing person is Griffin himself.

The books paint a vivid picture of crime, poverty and moral compromise in New Orleans. ‘We aren’t angels,’ sighs Griffin’s lover Verne at one point in The Long-Legged Fly. ‘Angels couldn’t breathe the air down here. They’d die.’ They also wrestle with more universal themes, such as family, memory and loss; and once Sallis plants these ideas in your head it’s hard to shake them out. It’s this power that puts the Griffin novels in a select group of books I’ve read more than once, and am shortly to start reading again. They’ve recently been published electronically, so I’m looking forward to re-acquainting myself with the mysterious Lewis Griffin.

The Long-Legged Fly plays an intriguing game, setting out the framework that the reader will see filled out in subsequent books. As the action moves deftly from 1964 to 1970, then on to 1984 and 1990, each section sees private investigator (and sometime debt collector) Lew Griffin tasked with finding someone who has disappeared: a female civil rights activist, a teenage runaway, the sister of a friend. But this search is only part of the narrative, and what’s equally intriguing is what the reader learns about Griffin and the ominous fragility that is central to his character. Sallis gives us a very real portrait of a man standing on the edge of an abyss, toes dancing over empty air – a trait that also makes Griffin so empathetic. In the people he is looking for, he continually sees echoes of himself:

I wondered then: what was it that started a person sinking? Was that long fall in him (or her) from the start, in us all perhaps; or something he put there himself, creating it over time and unwittingly just as he created his face, his life, the stories he lived by, the ones that let him go on living. It seemed as though I should know. I’d been there more than once and would probably be there again. Sooner than I thought, perhaps.’

We witness just how far Griffin can fall near the end of The Long Legged Fly, although we only join the action when Griffin is starting to recover. The reasons for his decline remain opaque, and the reader has to wait until later books in the series to better understand what has happened to him. In a lesser writer’s hands this lack of information would be maddening – but Sallis is skilful enough to make us care about what Griffin is going through in the present, concerned more with Griffin’s recovery and resettlement than what drove him to the depths in the first place. That will come later.

Griffin’s character is both elusive and allusive; and one of the many pleasures of the series is just how well-read the narrator is. The title of The Long Legged Fly comes from a poem by Yeats, and the book’s many other literary references partly stem from Griffin’s childhood – a time when he ‘devoured… books the way other kids did candy or sandwiches [and] spent days hunched over… in the drifting Delta dust, my spine an oversize question mark.‘ All of which might sound hopelessly worthy; and yet there’s life and humour here as well, and the sense of a huge world just round the corner waiting to be discovered.

In trying to collect a debt from someone named Francois Villon, Griffin is directed towards a college. But the receptionist has bad news for him: Villon is a pseudonym, borrowed from a Medieval French poet who (appropriately enough) also had a reputation as a petty criminal. She quotes a brief snippet from one of his verses, a quatrain that made me snort with laughter and eager to learn more about him:

‘I am Francois to my great dismay,

Born in Paris, up Pontoise way;                                                                                                                                         

By a fathom of hempen cord I’ll sway                                                                                                                         

While my neck discovers what my buttocks weigh.’

james sallis

Villon is alleged to have written a poem to give himself an alibi for a robbery he may (or may not) have been involved in. Not well-known, but certainly a singular character; and I was stunned when his name came out of nowhere last week, during a Year 7 English class that I teach. I’d asked the pupils to find out what a ballad was, and bring in an example. One of them handed me a piece of paper with Villon’s name scrawled across the top and I took it in surprise, for a moment genuinely unsure whether I was dreaming. Fiction can do that to you sometimes.

The Long Legged Fly is a book full of similar surprises and well worth the attention of anyone looking for a more unusual crime read. Sallis has written a book that succeeds on a number of levels, from straight PI novel to something altogether more complicated. What unites them all is a constant humanity. Through Lewis Griffin the author reminds us that we’re all just trying to make ends meet, ‘improvising our way from day to day through the years we call a life.‘ Doing our best to imitate his empathy is not a bad lesson to take away from any novel.

One comment

  1. […] James Sallis, The Long Legged Fly – The first book in Sallis’s twisty Lew Griffin series has much to recommend it, taking it well beyond what you’d normally expect from a PI novel. I certainly don’t recall many others quoting medieval French poet Francois Villon’s words on his imminent execution: ‘I am Francois to my great dismay/Born in Paris, up Pontoise way;/By a fathom of hempen cord I’ll sway/While my neck discovers what my buttocks weigh.’ That’s some epitaph. […]

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