Arts and Entertainment

Looking at crime from the inside out

Award-winning private author John Straley has written six private eye novels over the course of his career. He brings his newest, a slight departure from the genre, to Eagle Harbor Thursday. - Courtesy photos
Award-winning private author John Straley has written six private eye novels over the course of his career. He brings his newest, a slight departure from the genre, to Eagle Harbor Thursday.
— image credit: Courtesy photos

Alaskan author John Straley has written six private eye novels over the course of his near 20-year career. He’s actually been, and still is, a part-time private investigator in real life.

His first book, “The Woman Who Married A Bear” — a case-closed, now re-opened murder-mystery set in his hometown of Sitka, Alaska — won a 1993 Shamus Award, a top honor for crime writers annually bestowed by the Private Eye Writers of America. That book also introduced Straley’s signature detective, a disheveled Cecil Younger, whom the author would go on to follow through five more books, including the intriguing titles “The Curious Eat Themselves” and “Death and the Language of Happiness.”

By the end of the Cecil Younger series — “Cold Water Burning” in 2001 — 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, “The Big Both Ways,” 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 “Big Both Ways” 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.

“It’s not your typical private eye novel,” Straley said. “It’s more of a sea adventure crime story.”

And, as so many good crime stories do, it begins with a body in the trunk.

“Even 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.” That’s Straley’s opening line.

Though we don’t know it just yet, that surprisingly fairly likable “whore” is one of the story’s 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 story’s protagonist Slip Wilson is looking up at the lifeless body of a coworker, suspended 70 feet up an old Douglas fir tree.

“Well, I guess you better scamper up there and cut him down,” Slip’s 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 where’d he’d 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 — 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.

It’s a story that’s been brewing in Straley’s mind for years, heralded as a “thrilling journey” by the Seattle Times and an “unpredictable ride” by Publisher’s Weekly.

“I just sort of wander around and see things that I’m fascinated with, then I mix them and match them and try to mold them into a story,” 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 “The Big Both Ways,” he said, is a moniker for more than the just oceans’ currents.

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