Murray, KY – Commentator Michael Cohen peeks through the pages of Moth, an uncommon mystery by James Sallis about an existential detective investigating the death of an old love on New Orleans' mean streets.
Moth is the second book about New Orleans sometime detective Lew Griffin. A true amateur, Griffin only takes cases urged on him by relatives and friends, and he does not take their money. Mostly he finds people, though he cannot prevent their getting lost again. Griffin goes on finding them, and they go on getting lost again.
So far we might be in any existential, angst-ridden hard-boiled detective novel that happens to be set in New Orleans. But this particular New Orleans detective is a large black man who quotes the existentialists, and others Camus, Kierkegaard, Joyce, Yeats, Jean Cocteau on the condition of the human race. Griffin's day job is teaching French language and literature at a college in the University district of uptown New Orleans.
Lew Griffin knows the South's mean streets, and in the course of this book, although he wins some fights, he is also beaten, cut, and shot. All the while he muses about his own past. "Kierkegaard was right," he thinks, "we understand our lives (to the extent that we understand them at all) only backwards." We learn a great deal about Griffin's past during the course of his musings, from the time he came to New Orleans at the age of sixteen from rural Arkansas and began his long love affair with a girl of the streets named LaVerne, who eventually went to school and became a social worker and left Griffin, as did the other women in his life.
Griffin's past always turns out to be the subject of his investigations. When Griffin's old love LaVerne dies, her husband of less than a year wants to hire Griffin to find LaVerne's daughter, who was born when LaVerne was married to a second husband. Griffin tracks down Alouette, who is addicted to crack and who has just given birth to a doomed premature child, whom Griffin ends up tending in her last days in a neo-natal intensive care unit, as if he himself were responsible for her. "Dostoevski said that we're all guilty of everything," recalls Griffin.
In one of several violent scenes, Griffin rescues Alouette from a crack house. After recovering from an overdose, she decides to go back to New Orleans and live with him. This works for a while. "Everything's so ordinary now, so plain," she writes in the note she leaves for Griffin. He discovers the note when he gets out of the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound he got while trying to find the wayward son of his college dean.
James Sallis manages to make his unlikely detective believable, and he wrote five other mysteries about him in the nineties. So far as I know, Ed Lacy is the only other white writer whose detective is a black man.
Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. His book Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and is available on Amazon.com.