The Long-Legged Fly
Walker & Company
Publication Date: 2001 (Hardcover first edition published in 1992 by Carroll & Graf)
200 Pages; $8.95
Date Reviewed: October 20, 2003
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003
James Sallis has been writing prolifically for a long time; not just mysteries, but poetry, short stories, biographies and music criticism. His mysteries are inevitably compared to James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series and to Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins books. Burke's detective books are set in New Orleans; Mosley's books are about a black detective. Not too hard to put two and two together to get to Sallis' black New Orleans detective. Not too fair, either. Sallis is an original.
Practicing what I preach about reading series mysteries in chronological order, I started Sallis' long-running Lew Griffin series with 'The Long-Legged Fly', a book that's now over ten years old. I was expecting a detective story seeped in New Orleans atmosphere. What I got instead was a story about a black detective, set in New Orleans, written in a lean, poetic style that's about as close as you can get to penning blues on paper.
'The Long Legged Fly' spans close to thirty years in the life of protagonist Lew Griffin. We first meet Lew in 1964, in his hometown of New Orleans. He's a detective, recovering from the break-up of his marriage, he's black and he's very, very angry. Lew is hired by a couple of black men with questionable political ties and agendas to find a well-known female black activist who boarded a plane in New York, bound for New Orleans, and completely disappeared. He finds her - crazed, ranting, and in restraints, in the psych ward of a New Orleans hospital.
Several years later, in 1970, Lew is hired by a sincere but simple backwoods Louisiana couple to find their teenage daughter who has run away to New Orleans. Lew finds her - mixed up with drug dealers and acting in porn films. He also finds her dead.
Forward fourteen years, to 1984. Lew is now in a psych ward, himself crazed and ranting, detoxing from drink and fighting his personal demons, tended by a redheaded Scottish nurse. Released from the hospital, Lew moves in to a halfway house and befriends his new roommate, Jimmy, who asks Lew to find his missing sister. Lew finds the sister - in time to tell her that Jimmy has been killed in a street brawl.
Forward to the final section set in 1990. After another stint in another psych ward, Lew is leading a stable, quiet life as the author of a successful Cajun detective series and teaching at a local college. He is contacted by his ex wife, Jane, to find their son David, who's gone missing in New York. Does Lew find David? Don't know - next book.
'The Long-Legged Fly' is a two-tiered lost-and-found story with an innovative and involving structure. Lew Griffin the detective is a successful finder of lost people. Lew Griffin the man is himself lost, not so much found as repaired, and lost again. Of the two tiers, the Lew Griffin character story is the more compelling. Lew's detecting is simple and somewhat thin. A few phone calls, a few interviews, and a couple of convenient tips - missing person found. If you read mysteries for plot or rock 'em, sock 'em action, you'll be disappointed; there's little meat to the mystery stories. With just enough substance to keep you turning pages and with minimal violence, the slender mystery stories plate the truly meaty fare, the character of Lew Griffin himself.
At the outset, Lew Griffin is a hate-filled black man, an isolated outsider in a white world, who makes his way from bar to bar, from drink to drink, through the seedier undersides of New Orleans. His companions are hookers and pimps, bar keepers and petty criminals. His black man's rage is poisonous; his perspective grim and pessimistic, his most common state is drunk and despairing. He has lost connections with his family, is seemingly unmoved by his father's impending death, divorced from his wife and son, and spending time with LaVerne, a hooker who beds and befriends him between paying clients. Post-rehab, he takes up with Vickie, the redheaded Scottish nurse who comforted him through detox, and for a brief time dampens his demons with a life that is comfortable, stable and emotionally satisfying. But Vickie returns to Scotland; Lew returns to his search and to alcohol as his pain-killing salve.
'The Long-Legged Fly' is a novel about Lew Griffin's quests - for identity, for love, for a peaceful place - his quest to create himself anew. Uneasy in the world, uneasy in his own black skin, Griffin is searching for his place, his persona, and his personal and psychological comfort zone. Sallis enriches his story with evocative descriptions of New Orleans and laces it with New Orleans City history. His writing is finely cadenced, often poetic, dark and elegantly spare. Sallis invents a truly absorbing and complicated character using an unconventional structure that's both intelligent and perceptive. As Lew emerges as the writer of a detective series, the narrative becomes obviously autobiographical; the line between author and character blurred. Brimming with eloquent musings and well-phrased truths, Sallis' 'The Long-Legged Fly' starts a truly sensational series.