One of James Sallis’s major contributions has been his ability to combine hard-boiled and noir elements with literary-quality characterizations and elegant prose. Although often identified as mysteries, Sallis’s intensely introspective novels are only loosely plotted around some puzzle and are primarily explorations of character and the meaning of experience.
Sallis is also notable for being one of the first white authors to explore in depth the life of an African American protagonist (Lew Griffin). On occasion, Sallis has been criticized for writing so intimately of the African American experience, but he grew up in an area that was 70 percent African American and learned at firsthand about the lives of poor and rural blacks in the South. He has also made a long-term study of Chester Himes (1909-1984), the African American author of nine detective novels and an influence on Sallis’s hard-boiled fiction. In Sallis’s books, Griffin is treated neither stereotypically nor overly sympathetically, but with absolute realism as a complex, flawed individual. The character was initially modeled on the life of Himes but has developed to include aspects of many men that Sallis has known, from blues musicians to intellectuals, from family men to petty criminals.