James Sallis’ Lew Griffin series is one of the most respected in private eye fiction. Following the life of a black New Orleans private detective turned writer and teacher, it probes race, family, and politics with literary gravitas. Sallis has described working on the books as a poet and short story writer learning how to write a detective novel. That is definitely apparent in the first book, The Long-Legged Fly.
The book is basically four stories, each set in a decade of Lew Griffin’s life. Some aren’t even long enough to be considered novellas. The first has Lew tracking down a missing activist in 1964. He’s in search of a runaway in the seventies, a friend’s son in the eighties, and pulled back into being a detective to find his own in the nineties. Many of these stories examine human frailty, including Griffin’s own. There is something missing in these missing persons and he often carries their weight.
Sallis’ skills as a poet are put to use. In the opening chapter, he uses the sound of an oil derrick outside his office to repeat effect as Lew discusses the case with his client. Descriptions of New Orleans and its people float on top of the city’s thick bayou air. Only Reed Farrel Coleman, another poet turned crime writer, rivals him in description and emotion.
The key to the novel is Lew Griffin, himself. Sallis gives the character the kind vulnerability that you find in a classic R&B tune that pulls us in. We are with Lew, even at his worst. We know he can handle these mean streets, but they’re breaking his heart, if not his bones.
It has been said that the Lew Griffin books are more novels about a private detective than private detective novels. Lew Griffin is a character who lets you in, but holds back enough with you wanting to know more. Sallis sets him up beautifully in The Long-Legged Fly.
The Long-Legged Fly is available for purchase in-store and online now from BookPeople.