Remaking the mystery

Southeast's best-selling whodunit writer reconsiders his characters

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

For more than a decade, Sitka author John Straley has taken murder mystery fans on a tour of a place "where the salmon flash like slices of silver."

His Cecil Younger detective novels have shown tens of thousands of readers an only-in-Southeast-Alaska world where rain "falls in percolated drops, breaking the tension of the (ocean's) shiny black surface." They've followed the alcoholic, lost-at-love, financially challenged anti-hero through streets where he can't turn a corner without running into a raven "hunched on an abandoned truck waiting for the garbage cans to blow over."

Straley has based some of his fictitious detective's adventures on his own life as one of the Panhandle's few private investigators.

But that's changing. Straley dropped detective work last fall in favor of teaching. And despite probably being Southeast's best-selling contemporary author with six widely praised books, some translated into French, German, Spanish and Japanese, he's not writing about Cecil anymore.

"Random House is not interested in any more Cecil books, so the future for Cecil is uncertain," Straley said in a recent interview. "I'm kicking around the idea of coming up with a whole new crime series with a whole new cast of characters."

He already has one Cecil-less manuscript in the hands of his agent, "Cold Storage, Alaska," about a health-care practitioner in a Southeast boardwalk town not unlike Pelican. And he continues to contribute short stories to anthologies and is working on a humor column for Alaska magazine.

Straley's forte is his ability to convey the imagery of a small Southeast town, said Lisa Busch, a longtime Sitka writer and public radio reporter. An example is his description of a waterfront thoroughfare near his floathouse office.

"His description of Katlian Street is just really right on, with the worlds that are meshing there - the processors and the Native village and the working harbor - he creates a mental image and a feel of the place," Busch said.

Since Soho Press released "The Woman Who Married a Bear" in 1992, Straley's life has been mixed up with Cecil's. With more than 100,000 copies of his first mystery in print and about 50,000 of each of his other five books floating around, a lot of people have wondered about the author.

Some people he meets on mystery cruises, at writing conferences and on the streets of his 8,000-population hometown think the books are autobiographical.

"I've gotten unsolicited information from people concerned about my health and my well-being," he said.

But unlike Cecil, Straley's never been arrested, never been chased across Sitka Sound by corporate assassins, never jumped from a moving floatplane - although he laughingly remembers the time he almost fell off a pontoon while getting off a floatplane drifting toward a tie-up. And while he's enjoyed alcohol, he's never drunk as much as Cecil, who once woke up on the floor with "the impression of the short shag carpet crushed into my forehead and a cigarette butt pressed against my eyelid."

Cecil's alcoholism, like his many other questionable traits, is part of his inventor's attempt to reflect the complex culture of a part of the country few of his readers know about.

"Alcohol is just such a part of the crime culture in Alaska and I didn't want to do it from a perspective of looking down on people," Straley said.

Drinking is just one part of the recipe for the Cecil Younger plot lines.

"I draw inspiration from certain sets of facts. But I'm pretty careful to mix it up," he said. "I don't want to write about the actual cases that I've worked on. I want my own story. Like any fiction writer, I want it to go anywhere I want it to go."

But the connections between his imagination and real life can't be ignored.

Take the final Cecil novel, "Cold Water Burning." It begins with the disappearance of Richard Ewers, who detective Cecil helped beat the rap after he was accused of killing four people on a boat anchored in a bay north of Sitka that was set ablaze to cover up the crime. Some 15 years ago, detective Straley helped Washington fisherman John Kenneth Peel win acquittal on charges of murdering eight people on board a boat anchored near Craig, then burning it to destroy the evidence.

Sure there are similarities, Straley said. He writes about what he does, where he lives and who he knows. But the connections between the worlds of Cecil and Straley aren't as simple as some readers think.

"All my characters are hodge-podges, amalgamations of real people and a lot of fiction. But sometimes people say, 'I know who that character is. I know exactly who that is.' And I've never had anybody get even close to being right," he said.

Places are more likely than people to make the transition from real life to the printed page.

Once, Straley the investigator tracked a murder witness to a boat tied up below a Ketchikan wharf. The only way down was to descend a damp, barnacle-encrusted ladder.

"I'm climbing down toward this boat and it was this drippy, classic, wet, rainy Ketchikan day and there's this blue heron back up under the wharf. It lets out one of those 'yaaah' calls and flies by. And at that moment, I thought, 'This is a cool job. This is the kind of thing that real private eyes do.' That moment had all the mood, all the energy of a story I hadn't seen anywhere else."

Straley filed the moment in his journal, calling it up for "The Curious Eat Themselves," his second Cecil novel.

Such imagery is one of the reasons Straley is Alaska's strongest mystery writer, said Sheldon McArthur, owner of The Mystery Bookstore, an online and retail specialty outlet in Los Angeles.

"When people discover John's books, rarely is the case they don't come back and say, 'God I love this guy. I've got to have all of his books,' " McArthur said. "Anytime I get out-of-print Straleys, they are going right out of the store."

Straley didn't grow up planning to write about murders or investigate crime in small-town Alaska. His family moved around a lot and eventually he landed in Washington state, where he studied to be a farrier, or horseshoer.

"I wanted to be itinerant and travel around and work," he said.

But in 1977, his wife Jan, now a recognized whale expert, got a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sitka.

"And we got here and there wasn't a damn horse anywhere. And I stopped being itinerant. Far from driving the long, lonesome highways, I was here in a town with, what, 17 miles of roads?"

He worked as a U.S. Forest Service trail crew foreman for six seasons until an attorney hired him as an investigator trainee, which led to a variety of detective jobs, including the John Kenneth Peel murder case and others with Alaska's public defender agency.

"I've had guns waved around and I've been threatened and yelled at and I've felt my life in danger several times," he said.

But most often, Straley the detective has had little of the adventure of Cecil the detective. No shootouts, no car chases, no finding bodies oozing blood and stuffed in the back of floatplanes. Real-life investigators spend long hours interviewing witnesses and reading through court files.

But the work got his imagination going, which led to the creation of Cecil.

Straley's work has not brought him great wealth or fame. And in the world of regional mystery writers dominated by the Southwest's Tony Hillerman and New England's Jane Langton, he says he's easily eclipsed by fellow Alaskans Dana Stabenow and Sue Henry.

When he's asked to appear at writing conferences, the invitations often don't include pay. And while waiting to board a recent World Explorer mystery cruise through British Columbia and Southeast, he found someone less than enthralled by his writing.

"This lady standing behind me in line reaches over my shoulder and points to a book that the lady in front of me was holding - it was one of my books - and says, 'God, I hate this guy's writing. ... All that drinking and angst, boo hoo hoo. Break out the violins, for Christ sake.'

"I said, 'What, are you kidding? I love this guy.' "

Most people, however, are polite and Straley enjoys the tours and conferences, where he lectures or joins panels discussing the elements of mystery writing, methods of investigation and humor.

While he travels some, Straley mostly stays in Sitka with his wife Jan, and teenage son Finn, where he keeps a disciplined writing schedule.

"I work it like a regular job," he said. "I'm a person who really loves routine. Routine just really helps me keep focus."

That routine changed last year after Straley took down his private investigator shingle. Instead of chasing witnesses, he's grading papers for creative writing and intro to literature classes he teaches at the University of Alaska Southeast's Sitka campus.

Publishers are abandoning more and more "mid-list authors" such as Straley in part because of pressure from megabooksellers, such as Barnes and Noble and Borders, said McArthur of The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles.

"The giant publishers like them are totally numbers-orientated. They are looking for more and more higher-number books and fewer mid-number books," McArthur said.

Straley wouldn't criticize his publishers, which still sell his books. But he admits it's odd to sit down at his computer without one of Cecil's adventures on the screen.

"For the last five or six years I've been working on a Cecil book and now I'm not. It does feel strange."

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