Friday, March 27, 2020

A Rainy City of Dark Desires

Earlier this morning, my 14th article for CrimeReads appeared in that excellent online publication. Its topic—Seattle, Washington, as a setting for crime and thriller fiction—is one that I have been thinking about for quite a while, but tackling it required that I first read or re-read a variety of novels in my possession.

All of the ingredients necessary to make Seattle a fertile environment for tales of homicide, turmoil, and detection seem to exist in this Pacific Northwest city: a history boasting “criminality of all sorts and severities”; an ethnically, culturally, and financially diverse population; an economy powered by both modern, rising enterprises (Microsoft, Amazon, and other high-tech trailblazers) and long-established businesses (Boeing, Starbucks, Nordstrom, etc.); and of course, oft-inclement weather that lends a noirish aspect to any story’s backdrop, with local rain and cloud shadow supplying cover to malefactors.

That Seattle hasn’t yet become synonymous with crime fiction in the same way that, say, New York City, L.A., and San Francisco have certainly isn’t for wont of trying. Indeed, there have been many fine Seattle-set novels in this genre produced over the last 80 years—10 of which I highlight today in CrimeReads, by authors including Stuart Brock, Bernadette Pajer, G.M. Ford, and K.K. Beck.

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While assembling my piece, I couldn’t help but think about how several famous contributors to this field of fiction once had experience with Seattle, yet failed to employ the city in their work.

In 1920, for instance, Dashiell Hammett sought hospital treatment for tuberculosis in Tacoma (just 33 miles south of Seattle), and while there stumbled across the inspiration for the famous “Flitcraft Parable” that his gumshoe Sam Spade recites in The Maltese Falcon (1930). Hammett likely found time during his weeks-long stay, or perhaps amid his previous travels up the West Coast as a Pinkerton detective, to see Seattle’s sights. But they must not have impressed him greatly, for the town didn’t star in his later stories. Raymond Chandler, too, knew this so-called Emerald City. He stayed here with friends awhile in 1932, after being dismissed from his oil company job in Los Angeles for alcoholism and absenteeism. Once again, though, Chandler’s fiction reflected no significant interest in this locale.

Alan Furst also resided in these parts for a spell, though the historical espionage yarns he’s now turning out (A Hero of France, Under Occupation) take place primarily in Europe. Likewise, British-born author Michael Dibdin made his home here from the 1990s through the mid-2000s, but wrote primarily about an Italian police commissioner named Aurelio Zen. And as far as I know, thriller author Robert Ferrigno still resides in Kirkland, a historic burg on the east side of Lake Washington, but prefers to place his mayhem-packed stories as far away from this place—and his family—as he can. The sole exception, I believe, is his 2013 novel, The Girl Who Cried Wolf.

If any or all of these writers had done more to integrate the Northwest’s largest metropolis into their storytelling, there’s no question that Seattle would be recognized more widely as an ideal milieu for crime fiction. But would their books have been better than those that already exist? It’s impossible to know.

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