14 June 2018

Dark Side of the Sound: Seattle Through 21 Crime Novels

(My buddy Jim Thomsen is something of a connoisseur of Pacific Northwest literature, and that includes crime fiction. As such his insights are not to be missed. See you in two weeks! –Brian)

by Jim Thomsen

Elmore Leonard advised crime-fiction authors to “never open a book with weather.” But Dutch never wrote about Seattle, and the problem with his half-serious advice when it comes to depicting the dark side of the Emerald City — a sunny marketing term usually used here with a smirk and the sour pump of a thumb-covered fist — is that, well, there’s still the rest of the book. And even for those of us who have lived in the Puget Sound region for large stretches of our lives, the impulse to slather large page spreads with thick knife-sides of rain-jellied atmosphere is all but irresistible.

(In my work-in-progress, I caught myself writing, with a smirk, if not the other: “Pacific Northwest rain is the passive-aggressive drizzle of a middle-aged man with prostate problems.” I didn’t feel great about it but I kept it, which is an eminently Seattle attitude toward anything and everything from shopping on Amazon to buying $22 hipster cocktails in Belltown to installing Microsoft software updates.)

“Passive-aggressive” might also describe Seattle’s presence in the global eye as a crime-fiction capital. The Pacific Northwest is often called the serial-killer capital of the world, and while that’s true in a true-crime sense, given Green River Killer Gary Ridgway’s prolific slayings of prostitutes — he was convicted of 48 murders, mostly just south and east of Seattle, but claims he was responsible for at least 80 — fictional killings here have only fitfully captured the national imagination.

It seemed like Noir Seattle might have more than a moment in the mid-1980s, when Microsoft was on the ascendant, Starbucks had a frothy head of syndicated soy-milk steam and Boeing had roared back to rocket-fueled health after its “Will The Last Person Leaving Seattle Turn Out The Lights?” low point in the 1970s. All of that stood in contrast to the fishermen and boat builders and other blue-collar types who built the city, and the conflict between those who aspired to be world-class and those aspired to maintain middle-class standing proved to be fertile ground for fictional murder.

J.A. Jance had made a big splash with 1985’s Until Proven Guilty, starring J.P. Beaumont, a tough-but-tender alcoholic Seattle police detective who could have stepped from the pages of a Spillane novel; that same year, Earl Emerson came out with The Rainy City, featuring bicycling private eye Thomas Black (Emerson would win the Shamus Award for his second Black book, 1986’s Poverty Bay.) Soon after came attorney Fredrick D. Huebner with a series featuring lawyer Matt Riordan; suspense and cozy novels from K.K. Beck and Mary Daheim; police, P.I. and newsman procedurals from G.M. Ford and Ridley Pearson; all well-received, all findable on the drugstore paperback racks of flyover America.

But, just as grunge music came and went in the national consciousness in the space of a few years, so did the sense of Seattle as a fictional crime hub.

With the release of Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts, a big-buzzy Seattle-set thriller, Jet City may see another moment in the national consciousness as a symbol of disruption and reinvention. Jar Of Hearts is getting strong reviews (“There’s no denying her page-turner’s grab-you-by-the-throat power,” says Publishers Weekly) and a pricey, high-profile push from her publisher. In onetime Big Pharma exec Georgina “Geo” Shaw’s attempt to reinvent herself after a prison stretch for a moment of teenage horror, Seattle-watchers may see parallels in the city’s rapid, rapaciously rich transformation from isolated backwater to techbro paradise.

Seattle’s economy may be booming, but it’s become diminished in many ways that matter to readers. The city is down from two daily newspapers to one. More than a dozen bookstores have closed in the last dozen years, including the beloved Seattle Mystery Bookshop. And a lot of Seattle’s crime authors have been washed out with the tide — Earl Emerson, for one, hasn’t had a publishing contract in nearly a decade, and today the retired Seattle firefighter, now 70, quietly self-publishes a new Thomas Black novel every few years from his home at the extreme eastern edge of the Seattle sprawl, in the burg of North Bend (a.k.a., the setting of Twin Peaks).

And we can argue forever about whether Amazon, which has been taking over large organs of the body of downtown Seattle like a metastasizing tumor, has been good or bad for readers. (The short answer: Both.)

Also, many of the greater region’s most successful genre authors, such as Aaron Elkins, A.J. Banner, Urban Waite and Daheim, seem to prefer to set their works comfortably outside Seattle, in the Cascade foothills and amid the Salish Sea’s shoreline hamlets and secretive islands, buffered from the cacophonous bluster of what might as well be called Construction City. And others (Alan Furst, Robert Ferrigno, Ingrid Thoft) have called Seattle home but set their stories outside Washington state altogether.

Jennifer Hillier
A lot of the young energy filling Seattle comes from elsewhere, and in 2007, so did Jennifer Hillier, a Toronto native who spent a decade of living on the outer edges of Pugetopolis before moving back home last year (on the strength of her Jar of Hearts advance!). Yet, she’s set all five of her thrillers in and around Seattle, including Jar of Hearts, the tale of a serial killer, his onetime teenage love, and a body count rising on a wave of manipulation and obsession in scenes and settings that straddle the greater Seattle economic continuum.

I asked Hillier about how Seattle showed itself to her through her outsider’s eyes.

“I moved to Seattle in 2007 not knowing very much about it at all, other than what I learned from binge-watching the first two seasons of Grey’s Anatomy (in hindsight, I could have done better research),” she said. “But I fell in love with the city almost instantly, and something stirred creatively during that first winter.

“While not remotely the coldest I’d ever experienced, my first winter in Seattle was by far the wettest and darkest. Yet the trees stayed green. People still went outdoors as usual, even when it was raining, not even bothering with an umbrella. Folks were friendly, but not welcoming, and it was difficult to make friends.

She added: “Everyone seemed to drink a ton of coffee, which I now realize is the best way pep up in the constant absence of sun. I didn’t realize I was severely deficient in vitamin D, and the months from October to April were more depressing than I could have imagined. But a few months after surviving it, my first serial killer novel (Creep) was born.

“Maybe metaphorically the clouds provided the perfect cover for my villain to commit heinous crimes. Maybe the cool-yet-distant personalities of Seattle folks made them easier to fictionally murder. All I knew was that hunkering inside my house to write on dark, drizzly days—when I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything in the outside world—was not only perfectly acceptable, but comforting.”

Something in Jennifer’s words stirred an interest for me in seeing how crime-fiction authors have depicted Seattle over the last few decades. The list below is not meant to be Seattle crime-fiction canon, or even a survey of the novels I’d suggest to others. But it does touch on just about every subgenre, and each title shares a willingness to not just set a story in Seattle, but to interpret it to some degree for those who have never been here.

And, maybe, make you understand why we who grew up with metaphorical webbed feet like to marinate in its miseries.

The Butcher, Jennifer Hillier (2014)

Quote: “He had initially wanted an inground pool, but Jason had put the kibosh on the idea, reminding Matt that the weather in Seattle was only conducive to swimming between July Fourth and Labor Day. Eight weeks of summer was hardly worth the thousands it would cost to build a pool.”

Note: This was Hillier’s third thriller, with a powerhouse premise: an 80-year-old serial killer who’s still got the urge … and happens to be retired as Seattle’s chief of police. The novel didn’t sell well, and Hillier’s next title, Wonderland, was demoted to her publisher’s ebook-only imprint. Jar Of Hearts represents a rare comeback in a world where poor sales numbers often create a death stench that few careers can escape.

Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca? G.M. Ford (1995)

Quote: “Somebody once said that living in Seattle was like being married to a beautiful woman who was sick all the time.”

Note: Wanda Fuca is the first of ten (so far) private-eye novels featuring Leo Waterman. Ford, now 73, lived in Seattle for more than two decades but has since moved to San Diego. The series continues, through Thomas & Mercer, Amazon’s crime-and-thriller imprint. Wanda Fuca (a pun on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the body of water that separates Western Washington from British Columbia and Puget Sound from the Pacific Ocean), was nominated for Anthony, Shamus and Dilys awards.

Until Proven Guilty, J.A. Jance (1985)

Quote: “Seattle is used to the kind of gentle drizzle that lets people walk in the rain for blocks without an umbrella and without getting wet.”

Note: Jance, now 74, splits her time between Seattle and Arizona. Part of standard Jance lore is that she used a gender-neutral pen name because a publisher told her that readers wouldn’t buy books written by a woman about a male detective. Quite the opposite of today, when male authors (A.J. Finn, Riley Sager, S.J. Watson, et al) routinely adopt androgynous pseudonyms to break into the suspense subgenres now dominated by women.

Nervous Laughter, Earl Emerson (1986)

Quote: “Two angry rain showers doused us on our short journey, but the street was dry when we parked on Third Avenue. Seattle was like that. If you don’t like the weather, stick around five minutes.”

Note: The Thomas Black mysteries were the ideal blend of Seattle aesthetics and snappy-shamus wordplay, and over 33 years, Black has aged little but grouses much. In the latest Black mystery, 2018’s Jackson Street, Black grumbles: “I hated what growth was doing to the city, but nobody was asking me.”

A Man's Game, Newton Thornburg (1996)

Quote: “The next morning was a little too perfect for an old Seattleite like Baird. There was a stiff breeze blowing out of the north, holding the temperature in the high sixties and scouring the air so vigorously that the city’s streets and buildings seemed to sparkle in the brilliant sun. Flags spanked and trees shimmered, and down the hill the Sound was a lake of blue fire rimmed by the green of the peninsula, above which the Olympics soared snowcapped and jagged, as if they had been placed there by the Chamber of Commerce.”

Note: Thornburg is revered by hardcore crime-fiction fans for his 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, which became an equally fetishized 1981 film, Cutter’s Way, starring John Heard and Jeff Bridges. But he lived in Seattle for the last 31 years of his life, dying in 2011 at age 82, and set a couple of novels there, including 1990’s The Lion at the Door. He published fewer than ten novels in a career cut short by a 1996 stroke.

Have You Seen My Son? Jack Olsen (1982)

Quote: “Far across the Sound, Seattle’s new buildings shimmered in the April sun like rock candy. A row of cormorants rode serenely past on a gravel barge; an auklet pecked at a slick. The lovely light-struck scene made her smile. She shut her eyes and sucked in the salty air with a sybaritic hiss. She asked herself if there was life after separation and decided that the answer was yes, provided the weather held up.”

Note: This was the last of six novels written by Olsen, the author of nearly forty books who was known for decades as “the dean of true crime” (though he despised the term). Olsen, a Philadelphia native, lived in Western Washington from the early 1970s until his 2002 death. Many of his books, including this one, were reissued by Crime Rant Press, run by Gregg Olsen, another Western Washington author of fiction and true crime — and yet, no relation.

Thick as Thieves, Neil Low (2008)

Quote: “Ballard is old town, Swede town, fishing town. It is a quiet, unflashy place of plain old houses on plain streets, where people still just do their jobs and raise their kids and hope for a decent break. It’s probably the last neighborhood in Seattle where you can light a cigarette in a bar without immediately being placed on the same social scale as, say, a child molester.”

Note: Low, who set this debut novel in the 1940s, is a Seattle Police captain. He also leads walking tours of some of downtown Seattle’s “most notorious crime scenes.” His love of old-school Seattle is evident in this bit of praise from the late Seattle true-crime author Ann Rule, who said: “Reading it is akin to stepping into a film noir, shadowy, smoky and shocking.”

Picture Postcard, Fredrick D. Huebner (1990)

Quote: “In his later years, influenced by Asian art and postwar abstract expressionism, his work had become officially abstract, but I thought I could still see in his later canvases the dark waters and green rocky forms of the Pacific Northwest landscape, the pellucid oyster light of the Northwest sky.”

Note: Huebner, a mediation attorney, appears to have given up on publishing novels; apart from a little-noticed thriller in 2015, his last mystery was published in 2001. In an interview that year, he said: “I’m finding it harder and harder to maintain the intensity of focus needed to write, sitting on the terrace with my wife, looking over the flower garden.” Not sure there’s a more Seattle-area attitude than that.

Greywalker, Kat Richardson (2006)

Quote: “As we headed south to Pioneer Square, mid-April was doing its spring fake-out of good weather. Seattleites seem to forget that it usually starts raining again in May; they were out without jackets, enjoying the beginning of an unexpected clear evening that would probably turn cold by nine and produce more fog by morning. In spite of its capriciousness, this was usually my favorite time of year.”

Note: As far as I’m concerned, Seattle is its own dystopian setting, but Richardson took it up a notch with a nine-volume series about a Seattle P.I. who drifts between the gray and the Grey — a parallel world of ghosts, vampires, witches and magic. For many years, the California native lived “in the Seattle area with her husband and a pit bull named Bella aboard an old wooden boat haunted by the ghosts of ferrets,” according to her website.

Night Strike, Michael W. Sherer (2015)

Quote: “Seattle was a backwater, a city that would have been an afterthought had it not been for Boeing first, and Microsoft later, huge companies that had kept the economy alive and attracted other businesses. Yet she’d been called to these boondocks four times now because things happened here, world-changing events. Its proximity to the Pacific and all the countries along that ocean’s rim made it a gateway for commerce, technology and criminal enterprise in both directions. Maybe the other Washington was passé. Maybe this was where the action was.”

Note: As Ford’s career was revived by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, Sherer’s was hurt by it; the imprint dropped him a couple of books into his thriller series about Blake Sanders, a newspaper deliveryman who tends to get swept up in high-stakes geopolitical horrors. The Illinois native, who broke in as an author of Chicago-based mysteries, has shifted to young-adult thrillers with a female protagonist.

Murder One, Robert Dugoni (2011)

Quote: “Summer in Seattle, Sloane had concluded, was the reason people in the Northwest tolerated the nine miserable months of gray and rain. God must have chosen Seattle to spend His summers; there was no other way to describe the beauty that befell the place almost immediately after July Fourth. The snowcapped Olympic Mountains to the west looked close enough to touch, and the water brightened from a bland gray to a sparkling blue, with everything beneath a great dome Michelangelo could not have painted better.”

Note: Dugoni is an energetic and prolific presence on the Seattle-area literary scene and the crime-fiction conference circuit. He pivoted from legal thrillers with a well-received series of procedurals featuring Seattle Police Detective Tracy Crosswhite, published by Thomas & Mercer. This year, he crossed over into literary fiction with The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.

The Silence of the Chihuahuas, Waverly Curtis (2015)

Quote: “An umbrella would have helped me defend myself against that parrot, but no one in Seattle ever uses an umbrella. We view it as a sign of weakness. But it helps us identify the out-of-towners.”

Note: Waverly Curtis is the pen name of author friends Waverly Fitzgerald, who writes historical fiction, and Curt Colbert. Colbert is the author of Rat City, a well-regarded noir novel about Seattle after World War II, among other hardboiled offerings. Their accent-heavy readings at Seattle’s quarterly Noir At The Bar series, at the Hotel Sorrento, are not to be missed.

The Edison Effect, Bernadette Pajer (2014)

Quote: “Seattle was a city in perpetual motion, with destruction and construction happening side-by-side, above and below, and all the while business continued uninterrupted at a feverish pace. Like ants detouring around a leaf dropped in their path, the people of Seattle found ways around the messes and just kept going.”

Note: Pajer’s Professor Bradshaw science mysteries — four in all — take place in the Seattle of the early 1900s. She’s a Seattle native who traces her interest in writing to a chance encounter on Orcas Island with Richard Bach of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame.

Deadline Man, Jon Talton (2011)

Quote: “Soon Daylight Saving Time will be gone and Seattle will slip into the winter months when night comes early. It’s suicide season and the time of year when distracted drivers run down black-clad pedestrians and people complain about the dark and the rain. I like it.”

Note: Talton is the longtime economics columnist for The Seattle Times, and Deadline Man is about a columnist at a Times-like paper propelled into escalating geopolitical heinousness. Like Jance, most of his mysteries are set in his native Arizona.

Past Crimes, Glen Erik Hamilton (2015)

Quote: “They drill politeness into the Seattle cops with six-inch galvanized screws.”

Note: Hamilton, who was raised on a sailboat all over Puget Sound, now lives in Southern California. But, as he says on his website, he “frequently returns to his hometown to soak up the rain.” Past Crimes, the first of three (so far) in a series about Iraq War vet Van Shaw, won several awards.

Bound to Die, Laurie Rockenbeck (2017)

Quote: “Court checked to see if the mountain was out—a phrase locals used as an overall descriptor for the weather as well as their passion for Mount Rainier, the most prominent feature around. After a few seasons of living in Seattle, he’d learned how deceptive the clouds made the landscape. Months could go by by when the rain and low-lying clouds completely hid Rainier—a fourteen-thousand-foot glacier-covered volcano sticking up out of nowhere. When the weather cleared, and you could see the mountain, it was like a goddess appearing to the world, the foothills like arms spread out for an embrace.”

Note: This debut, self-published novel was a first: a police procedural featuring a transgendered Seattle police detective (who identifies as male) with a special instinct for solving crimes involving exotic sexual cultures and practices. (Full disclosure: I was Rockenbeck’s editor.)

Bound to the Truth, Lisa Brunette (2016)

Quote: “You don’t understand. This is Seattle. You don’t actually meet anyone in person here. You waste a lot of time and energy petting each other for days until it escalates into brief but vague text-messaging. We’re at that stage. I’m sure the excitement will fizzle out before we reach the coffee-date stage.”

Note: Brunette segued to mystery novels after writing mystery scripts for video games as a “narrative designer” for Seattle-area mainstays Nintendo, Cat Daddy, Big Fish and a number of other game companies. She now lives in her hometown of St. Louis and runs her own gaming firm. (Full disclosure: I was Brunette’s editor.)

Assault and Pepper, Leslie Budewitz (2015)

Quote: “Throwing decent flowers in the trash is universal bad karma. It’s seriously bad karma in Seattle, where recycling is religion. Even our sample cups have to be recyclable or compostable. Putting ‘green waste’ in the wrong container violates more rules than you could shake a cinnamon stick at.”

Note: Budewitz’s Seattle Spice Shop cozies are set in the must-visit Pike Place Market. She went to Seattle University and later worked in Seattle for several years as an attorney before making her current home in her native Montana.

The Other Romanian, Anne Argula (2012)

Quote: “The idea of going six hundred and fifty thousand in debt, if I could even find a bank to lubricate that, for the joy of living in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment with a view of Pioneer Square and a slice of Puget Sound was hard for me to get my graying head around. My parents paid nine thousand for their house. Even now, for what I would have to pay for a small apartment in Seattle, I could get a horse ranch in Kentucky, including the nags.”

Note: Anne Argula is the pen name of Darryl Ponicsan, the novelist and screenwriter best known for The Last Detail (a 1970 novel that became a 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson), and Cinderella Liberty, a set-in-Seattle film from 1974 starring James Caan and Marsha Mason. Ponicsan, now, 80, has since relocated from Puget Sound to Palm Springs. The Other Romanian was the last of four novels starring female P.I. Quinn (no first name).

A Hopeless Case, K.K. Beck (1992)

Quote: “She’d remembered Seattle as a relentlessly dull town, far away from anything else; but, walking to Montcrieff’s office this morning, she’d found it quite charming, full of espresso carts and window boxes with flowers and interesting-looking people on the streets, and The New York Times on sale. Had she changed, or had Seattle changed? Both, she supposed.”

Note: Kathrine Beck writes lighthearted mysteries, most recently 2015’s Tipping the Valet, about a Seattle parking valet who’s “a master of bad timing.” A Hopeless Case is the first in a series about a lounge-singing female private eye in 1940s Seattle. Beck, now 68, was married to the late Seattle mystery author Michael Dibdin.

Black Hearts and Slow Dancing, Earl Emerson (1988)

Quote: “A rust-brown smudge ballooned over Seattle, end to end, a thousand feet thick. Mac knew the locals were telling themselves that if they were getting headaches and their eyes were bloodshot and their noses ran, it must be something else. Seattleites had a stunning town, but it grew dirtier by the minute. It was only Northwest vanity that kept people calling it fog.”

Note: There are so many good Emerson snark blasts about Seattle that I couldn’t resist one more. This one comes from the first of five novels about Mac Fontana, a small-town fire chief who’s often called to investigate cases with strong Seattle connections.


Jim Thomsen is a writer and book-manuscript editor who lives in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington, a 35-minute ferry ride west of downtown Seattle. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 25 years, including stints at The Seattle Times and The Kitsap Sun. A longtime board member of the Mystery Writers of America-Northwest chapter, his crime fiction has been accepted for publication in Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern, Switchblade and West Coast Crime Wave. He can be reached through his webpage: jimthomsencreative.com


  1. Is it too late to claim
    That I miss the rain?

  2. My father was from Seattle. We visited there once when I was four years old. My grandmother lived on Ferdinand Street. I remember she lived on a hill, but other family members say that is incorrect. From what I know of Seattle it seems to be a natural home for mysteries & fans of mysteries.

  3. I spent a few formative years in the Pacific Northwest, arriving in Tacoma the summer before sixth grade. I left midway through ninth grade and returned for about a year after graduating high school. I remember the Aroma of Tacoma, mowing the lawn in the rain, visiting Paradise during the winder and sliding down Mt. Rainier on inner tubes, and many other things about those years. Alas, what I can't remember ever doing is reading crime fiction set in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps I need to rectify that.

  4. It's an honor to be included in this roundup of Seattle noir. Great analysis of the genre and its adherents.

  5. Seattle weather does make the perfect backdrop for murder and possibly a bit of mayhem. My favorite location will always be Pioneer Square.

  6. As an antidote to corny, populace-flattering generalizations written in Seattle-based novels, always from one repetitious perspective, in 2012 I published a Seattle street-crime novel, "Dead At The Scene," by Joe Moore, through a dicey New York Independent, with a sample on Amazon, which I naturally didn't expect to find on your list of Seattle crime novels, for reasons that will become obvious.

    "Dead At The Scene" is a Seattle novel truly written from the perspective of an outsider, which unmasks the peculiar social dynamics here (such as a local love of immigrants/foreigners while disdaining a certain pre-existing segment of the population usually associated with crime) and contains no played-out, imitative, pithy flattery of the local population or worn-out weather observations.

    Quote: "There's a pretty good turnout at Neptune's (coffee chain) today, including a highly unlikely configuration of 3 whites and 1 black sitting at the table next to the cops."

    "Small, sideways, icy, rain drops, clear, cold, but lively, and tilted similar to (Detective) Sorensen's eyes, start hitting the glass."


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