With this sixth Lew Griffin novel, Sallis brings to an end one of the genre’s least conventional series (Blue Bottle, 1999, etc.). Teacher, writer, boozer, lover, never more than part-time shamus, Griffin is first and foremost a philosopher, albeit a two-fisted one. Given sufficient provocation—often only an eyedropper’s worth—he can level a bad guy as effectively as Spade, Marlowe, or Hammer. But his real métier is thinking, thinking, relentlessly thinking, as opposed to Sherlockian sleuthing. This time out, for instance, the central crime is the poisoning of pigeons in a neighborhood park. Griffin, a black man trying to find a place in the white man’s society, finds that his life has become by now a case of “too many lost battles.” He’s been beaten by cops, jailed, and banished to the streets, until melancholy suffuses his speech like a Louisiana miasma. “Everything got worse,” he says. “Always. The world’s single immutable law.” The traditional mystery plot receives but a lick and a promise here: Griffin finds his long-lost son, loses him again, breaks up with still another woman, lumbers around the seamy side of New Orleans and, through day-trips back and forth in time, investigates himself—for the most part, as things turn out, unrewardingly.
The reader makes out a lot better. Though despair eventually triumphs, it does so over luminously evocative prose and a protagonist of great charm whose wit flashes defiantly, and whose refusal to surrender is as gallant as it is heartbreaking.