It's hard to pinpoint just what makes a mystery mysterious. But if you hard-boil it down, it's all about the atmosphere. For Raymond Chandler, it was a Los Angeles full of mooks and wise guys and gorgeous dames; for James Lee Burke, it's something lurking under the surface of a Louisiana bayou. For John Straley, it's Alaska--a place wild and strangely urbane all at once.
Straley knows his way around the territory--he's been living up north with his marine-biologist wife for more than twenty years. So when his P.I. protagonist Cecil Younger describes a raven on a log in Sitka, you can see its black sheen and cold eyes and understand something about its soul.
It helps that Straley came to writing as a poet. "I love language," he says. "Actually, I'm dyslexic, and that's what brought me to poetry--I read like some listen to music. Language has a sound to me that's not necessarily meaning but just a collection of letters." He's also a lover of oral history and storytelling and has spent the last fifteen years working as a private investigator. All together, you've got the potential for a bang-up detective yarn.
Straley's fourth Younger novel, The Angels Will Not Care, a book he'll sign this week at the Rue Morgue in Boulder, delivers the goods. Set on an Alaska-coast cruise ship, it blends a LoveBoat-gone-awry ambience, contemporary issues and the forces of nature inevitable in a book about Alaska. At the center is Younger, a battered piece of the landscape himself, with his autistic foil Todd and lady friend Jane Marie in the periphery to diffuse the action.
Younger "represents the way I would want to look like if I were a character in a book," Straley says, though he admits there are elements of his own personality buried in Younger's temperament. "In reality, he's like the best and worst of my experiences as a private investigator, but it's the best and worst in extremes: In real life, criminal defense investigation is terribly mundane and grindingly slow, so I had to put in more action."
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When Younger bumps elbows with Alaska herself, the chemistry begins to simmer. "For me, southeast Alaska is a great place for mysteries," Straley says. "The towns are usually on an island or landlocked and roadlocked, so these communities are surprisingly cosmopolitan--like small cities, close together but surrounded by wild country." Younger is clearly a personality determined by that rarefied geographical climate. "In Cecil's character, there's a sort of deep unhappiness and sorrow you encounter when people's lives go screwy," Straley says. "Add the fact that more than one hundred inches of rain fall annually in Sitka, and it makes for a pretty gloomy mood."
Straley's now taking a break from the Younger series to write a thriller of a different color, but he vows that Cecil is far from finished. "I still have a lot of Cecil stories," Straley says. "But he's going to have to backslide a little--I can't see him getting really healthy and jogging and eating vegetarian food." And though he still keeps an office in Sitka, Straley's begun turning away cases in order to spend more time with his family and writing. "I'm tired of the life of crime," he contends. But success as a writer fuels his muse--just don't expect it to spoil a good thing.
John Straley signs The Angels Will Not Care, 7 p.m. August 24, Rue Morgue Bookstore, 946 Pearl Street, Boulder, 443-8346.