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Gripping 'Drive' gives crime fiction a distinctive turn

In his latest crime novel, James Sallis has combined the plot of a pulp novel from the '40s with the atmosphere of a French film noir into one stark and stunning tale of murder, treachery, and deceit. Not content to merely imitate the classic forms, though, Sallis has crafted a story that is uniquely his, putting his own stylized spin on a familiar tale.

''Drive" is an expansion of a story that Sallis originally wrote for Dennis McMillan's 20th anniversary anthology ''Measures of Poison," where it appeared alongside the works of such noir greats as James Crumley, George P. Pelecanos, and the late Charles Willeford. Although he doesn't often get the recognition that those giants of the genre do, Sallis clearly deserves to be mentioned in such rarified company.

The main character of the story, known only by the name Driver, defines himself by his work. As he explains, ''I drive. That's what I do. All I do." He makes his living as a stunt driver for Hollywood movies, but in his chest beats the heart of a bandit. Driver is not a vicious criminal, nor even a violent one, but he has a larcenous soul that is truly content only when he is doing what he does better than anyone else: driving a getaway car.

When the job he's on goes horribly wrong, Driver is laid-up in a sleazy Arizona motel, with bodies piled to and fro and a pool of blood soaking into the cheap, worn carpet. He was supposed to die along with the others, and when he doesn't, his former associates put a price on his head. From then on, there is no respite for Driver, as he must use every ounce of his considerable savvy just to stay alive.

At that point, ''Drive" becomes a revenge plot, with the book's antihero setting out to eliminate the men who threaten him before they have the chance to do him in first. In that aspect, the book is reminiscent of the fine work of Richard Stark in the Parker novels, an obvious source of inspiration. (Sallis, who also writes a monthly column for the Globe, dedicates the book to three crime writers, one of whom is Donald Westlake, Stark's alter ego.)

The author tells his story through a deliciously complicated, interwoven narrative that manipulates time, taking the reader back and forth along the chronology while doling out carefully chosen scenes to reveal pieces of the plot and insight into his enigmatic character.

The book revisits the story of Driver's hard knock life, drifting from the parched desert highways of Arizona, to the glittery streets of Los Angles and back. Along the way, he encounters a rogue's gallery of darkly humorous characters, including a cashiered doctor with a fondness for whiskey, and a failed novelist who hates ''the American political system, Hollywood movies, New York publishing, our last half-dozen presidents," and just about everything else.

Driver's day job as a stunt driver gives the author the chance to take a few well-chosen potshots at the Hollywood film industry, a business in which Sallis has apparently had a few misadventures. In one choice example, Driver relates a conversation he had once with a movie executive who described a story as ''something radically new. . . . Think Virginia Woolf with dead bodies and car chases."

''Drive" is a short book, a novella really, but it packs a wallop that far outweighs its page count. Sallis injects so much meaning and emotion into his carefully selected words that the power of his prose exceeds its volume.

Writing in such a compact, constricted format has energized Sallis's work, making ''Drive" as taut and gripping a novel as he has ever written. For those who have not yet had to chance to read one of crime fiction's most underappreciated writers, now is the perfect opportunity.

David J. Montgomery is a freelance book reviewer and the editor of Mystery Ink,

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