Tuesday, February 4, 2020

THE KILLER IS DYING Is a Great Novel from James Sallis

This is by no means a traditional crime novel, although there is a criminal--a contract killer named Christian--at the heart of the book. The killer is dying and he has taken one last assignment. His target is an unassuming man who works in the office of an insurance company in Phoenix. Christian scouts the man, learning his patterns, and then, just as he is about to strike, someone else shoots the man. Totally confused, Christian watches as the ambulance screams away, taking the victim to the hospital.

Christian is amazed by the coincidence that someone else would shoot the target just as Christian was closing in on him. But how could this possibly be a coincidence, and what could be going on here? Christian feels a professional obligation to complete the assignment and now must figure out how to get at the target who is hospitalized in an ICU. Meanwhile, as a man who has always lived a solitary life, he must deal alone with his own illness and confront his inevitable mortality.

At the same time, a detective named Sayles is investigating the shooting and tracking Christian. As he does, Sayles is confronting his own existential dilemma. His wife, Josie, is deathly ill and with no warning has left him to die in a hospice, without even saying goodbye. When he left for work in the morning, she was there; when he returns from work, she is gone.

Josie leaves a note specifically asking Sayles not to try to find her but to let her die in peace. he is gutted by the experience and must now try to figure out how to confront the new realities of his life. His partner, a detective named Graves, will try to give him the support and the space to work through this crisis, but for the first time in his life, Sayles is in many ways completely alone.

The final character in the story is a young boy named Jimmie whose parents, first his mother and then his father, have abandoned him. He is still living in the house that they shared, paying the bills by buying and selling things online, trying to prevent the authorities or anyone else from discovering that he is living alone, and attempting to come to grips with his circumstances. And, in addition to all of his other problems, he seems somehow to be having the killer's--Christian's--dreams.

The stories are interwoven, moving from one of the three characters to another sometimes from one paragraph to the next. This can be a bit confusing until you get into the rhythm of the book, which then becomes totally captivating and impossible to put down. This is a beautifully written novel about three men of varying ages adjusting to the solitude and changing circumstances of their lives, and it's one that I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.

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