Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. New Orleans is a city rich with history, different cultures, world-class music and food, and plenty of dark secrets. It’s a complex place, and that’s part of what makes it such an effective setting for a crime novel. Let’s take a look at one today and turn the spotlight on James Sallis’ The Long-Legged Fly.
Beginning in 1964, the novel tells the personal and professional story of private investigator and sometimes-debt collector Lewis ‘Lew’ Griffin. He’s good at finding people, and he knows New Orleans well enough to know where to look. The novel spans nearly thirty years of Griffin’s life, divided into four main sections.
In the first part of the novel (1964), Griffin is hired by two members of the Black Power movement to find noted activist Corene Davis. She’d been scheduled to fly from New York to New Orleans to give some speeches and make some appearances, but she never showed up. Or, if she made it to New Orleans, she disappeared shortly after her arrival. Griffin takes the information he’s given and slowly traces her movements on the day she went missing. He finds that Davis did land as scheduled in New Orleans. And that means that she is (or was) somewhere in the city. He finds out the truth about that case, and the novel goes on.
In the next major case Griffin gets, in 1970, Thomas and Martha Clayson hire him to find their sixteen-year-old daughter, Cordelia. She left their home in Mississippi, and they believe that she’s come to New Orleans, since that’s what she’d talked about doing. Griffin gently tries to warn them that she might not want to be found. Even if that’s not the case, there are plenty of dark and ugly places where a sixteen-year-old girl might end up. But the Claysons want to know the truth, so he starts asking questions. And, in the end, he puts the pieces of that puzzle together.
The next major case we learn about takes place in 1984. Griffin has had a major downward slide in his life and ends up staying in a halfway house for a time. He slowly gets his life together, but he maintains some links to people from that house. One of them is Jimmi Smith. When Jimmi’s sister, Cherie, goes missing, he worries about her and asks Griffin to see if he can find her. Griffin agrees and begins the work of tracing what’s happened to Cherie.
The last major case in the novel begins in 1990. Griffin’s ex-wife, Janie, calls to tell him that their son, David, who’s become an academic, hasn’t been in touch with her since he went on a sabbatical trip to Europe. David hasn’t been in contact with Griffin, either; and, after all, David is his son. So, Griffin starts making telephone calls, trying to trace his son’s whereabouts.
These cases are, if I can put it this way, the backdrop for the ups, downs, and changes in Griffin’s personal life. He begins as a PI/debt collector representative, slides badly downhill, picks up his life, bit by bit, and writes a novel that becomes very well-received. He ends up teaching some literature classes, too, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that he does achieve a certain sort of balance and even contentment.
The story is told from Griffin’s point of view (first person, past tense). So, we learn a lot about him. He’s always loved reading, and there are several references to various authors and books throughout the novel. He’s somewhat philosophical, too, and does his share of self-reflection. He doesn’t blame anyone but himself for his downfalls and troubles, and he does the best he can with what he has.
Griffin has his faults. At times, he drinks a lot more than he should, and he finds it very hard to be emotionally close to people. But you couldn’t really put him in the category of the ‘damaged detective who can’t maintain friendships.’ In fact, throughout the novel, there are several characters who are his friends (some are lovers), and who support him. And their help proves to be invaluable.
He has a compassionate side, too, that we see when he interacts with clients, with some of the down-and-out people he meets, and so on. In fact, it’s that compassion that sometimes gets him in trouble, as cases have an impact on him.
The novel takes place in New Orleans, and that city’s lifestyle, music, culture and society are woven throughout. But it’s not all the New Orleans that you see on tourist websites. The city is home to desperately poor people, gritty bars, ugly racism, sleaze, and more, and Griffin knows about it all. Parts of his cases take him to some very dark places, both literally and figuratively. Still, Griffin loves the city, and so, through him, does Sallis.
This isn’t a happy ‘light’ novel. Some of the cases are very bleak, and there’s real sorrow and ugliness. There’s violence, too, although it’s not protracted or always ‘on stage.’ But Sallis doesn’t gloss over the reality of what can happen in a big city like New Orleans. That said, though, it’s not relentlessly dark. Griffin has some long, supportive friendships, a gradually developing sense of stability, and a determination to survive.
The writing style is literary, with narrative description and thoughtful reflection. But there’s also a focus on the characters and action in the story, so it’s not overly long. My edition clocked in at 184 pages.
The Long-Legged Fly is a gritty, sometimes dark, story of life in New Orleans over the course of about thirty years. It features some haunting cases, a PI who is as much a part of the city as it is of him, and a cast of characters who support and influence him through the years. But what’s your view? Have you read The Long-Legged Fly? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 25 March/Tuesday, 26 March – Lay On, Mac Duff – Charlotte Armstrong
Monday, 1 April/Tuesday, 2 April – Full Curl – Dave Butler
Monday, 8 April/Tuesday, 9 April – Masks – Fumiko Enchi