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Looking at crime from the inside out
Alaskan author John Straley has written six private eye novels over the course of his near 20-year career. Heâs actually been, and still is, a part-time private investigator in real life.
His first book, âThe Woman Who Married A Bearâ ââ¯a case-closed, now re-opened murder-mystery set in his hometown of Sitka, Alaska ââ¯won a 1993 Shamus Award, a top honor for crime writers annually bestowed by the Private Eye Writers of America. That book also introduced Straleyâs signature detective, a disheveled Cecil Younger, whom the author would go on to follow through five more books, including the intriguing titles âThe Curious Eat Themselvesâ and âDeath and the Language of Happiness.â
By the end of the Cecil Younger series â âCold Water Burningâ in 2001 ââ¯the once drunk, depressed and bewildered private dick had gotten his life together, supporting his family with a steady job, all the while chasing down the bad guy and cracking the case.
As Younger reached resolution, Straley decided it was time to try his hand at something new.
So in his latest book, âThe Big Both Ways,â he travels inside the actual crime itself as his main characters Slip Wilson and Ellie Hobbes adventure up the Inside Passage from Puget Sound to Alaska, evading a dogged Seattle police detective and criminal union men who seem to be out for revenge.
Straley will be making a stop in Kitsap on his âBig Both Waysâ West Coast tour to read from and sign copies of the book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Eagle Harbor, 157 Winslow Way on Bainbridge.
âItâs not your typical private eye novel,â Straley said. âItâs more of a sea adventure crime story.â
And, as so many good crime stories do, it begins with a body in the trunk.
âEven though she had never traded sex for money, she was nothing now but a whore with a bloody nose. It was a hard fact to accept ... but there it was.â Thatâs Straleyâs opening line.
Though we donât know it just yet, that surprisingly fairly likable âwhoreâ is one of the storyâs main characters, Miss Hobbes, staring at a fresh corpse curled up in the trunk of an Oldsmobile, while tears roll down her chin.
Before we get a chance to find out anything more about her or the dead body, the story cuts to the northern woods of the Skagit River drainage in the northern Cascades where the storyâs protagonist Slip Wilson is looking up at the lifeless body of a coworker, suspended 70 feet up an old Douglas fir tree.
âWell, I guess you better scamper up there and cut him down,â Slipâs hardened logger boss says, spitting out a stream of tobacco juice.
And so the story opens with the question posed: What would you do if you were ordered to cut a dead co-worker down from the top of a tree whereâd heâd just been mangled to death?
Slip decides to call it a day.
He walks off the job and out of the forest with $2,000 saved â enough to buy a future, he tells himself. But little does he know what that road to the future will entail as he heads south with his thumb stuck out.
Itâs a story thatâs been brewing in Straleyâs mind for years, heralded as a âthrilling journeyâ by the Seattle Times and an âunpredictable rideâ by Publisherâs Weekly.
âI just sort of wander around and see things that Iâm fascinated with, then I mix them and match them and try to mold them into a story,â Straley said.
Two of his chief fascinations, historical events and the Pacific Northwest, are front in center in this novel and very well-founded. The story is set in 1935, just after Amelia Earhart set a speed record on a solo flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City at a time when the Roosevelt administration began relocating Dust Bowlers to communal farms in the Territory of Alaska. Beginning in the rough and tumble Puget Sound, the story travels to Alaska via the waterway known as The Big Both Ways, a passage that Straley has traveled many times by ferry and even on his own 40-foot boat.
But âThe Big Both Ways,â he said, is a moniker for more than the just oceansâ currents.