I’m no longer astonished by the extremes to which authors will go in trying to capture the attention of today’s crime-fiction followers. Too many of them are convinced that the more mayhem and sadistic encounters they pack between the covers of novels, the greater attention their efforts might generate. In an era when folks are growing increasingly jaded toward the brutalities humans willingly visit upon one another, it’s no wonder storytellers push the boundaries of good taste to incite emotional responses from their audiences. So we’re given ever-more-prolific serial killers, an increasing number of characters subjected to torture and rapes recounted in horrific detail.
More interesting—and rarer—these days are the writers who defy expectations, delivering crime and thriller yarns that are sparing in their applications of cruelty and carnage, yet still fit quite comfortably within the genre. Books such as John Straley’s new Cold Storage, Alaska.
You remember Straley, right? He’s the California-born, Seattle-educated wordsmith who went on to become a criminal defense investigator in Alaska, and then weathered early publisher rejections before finally winning a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America for his amusingly titled debut novel, The Woman Who Married a Bear (1992). That mystery welcomed readers into the company of Sitka gumshoe Cecil Younger, described by Kevin Burton Smith of The Thrilling Detective Web site as “a sensitive, introspective, literate type driven by a compulsive curiosity” but also a “cynical, shiftless, and self-centered…investigator with a nasty drinking problem and a legacy left to him by his father that he’ll never be able to live up to.” Straley developed Younger over the length of five additional tales, including The Curious Eat Themselves (1993) and Cold Water Burning (2001).
But then his literary output seemed to run dry. Not until 2008 did he make a comeback of sorts, releasing a non-Younger thriller, The Big Both Ways. It followed “a battered logger,” Slippery Wilson, and Ellie Hobbes, “a committed anarchist” with the body of a deceased union organizer in her car’s trunk, as they high-tailed it north (accompanied by Ellie’s niece, Annabelle) from Washington state to the Last Frontier in the mid-1930s, pursued by a determined Seattle police detective as well as vengeful union toughs. Unfortunately, The Big Both Ways—brought out by a small, Pacific Northwest publishing house—slipped past the radar of many crime-fiction enthusiasts. Let’s hope its sort-of-sequel, Cold Storage, Alaska, doesn’t suffer a similar fate, for while it may be short of bloodshed, this work is rampant with the absurdities of human interaction.
Straley’s latest story introduces us to Clive and Miles McCahon, sons of the aforementioned Annabelle. The 20th century has recently slipped into the 21st, and Annabelle is now an old woman, still plenty feisty but progressively more sick. She and Miles, her younger child—a lonely onetime army medic–turned–physician’s assistant—number among the 150 gossip-hungry residents of Cold Storage, a “failing fishing village” on the coast of southeastern Alaska. Things are pretty quiet in Cold Storage, but they’re destined to get a lot more exciting as 35-year-old Clive is released from Washington’s McNeil Island Corrections Center after serving seven years of a decade-long sentence for cocaine dealing, and determines to reinvent himself back in his hometown. On his trail follows not only a state trooper anxious to take Clive down for further infractions of the law, but also Jake Shoemaker, a wannabe Hollywood screenwriter and Clive’s former business partner, who intends to relieve the ex-con of money he believes Clive has stolen from him.
Although Clive brings with him an ostensibly vicious and indubitably ugly dog (“a gangbanger mix of Rottweiler, pit bull and wolf…with chewed-off ears”), he hopes to make a peaceful re-entry into the situation comedy that passes for Cold Storage society. He purchases a decrepit watering hole that once belonged to his grandmother, Ellie, and turns it into a “bar slash church.” (It seems local regulations require there be no more drinking establishments in Cold Storage than there are houses of worship, so Clive’s refurbished joint has to serve both functions.) Then he ingratiates himself with the town’s miscellaneous eccentrics, everyone from the Tlingit Indian laboring on a book about white folks that no one has ever seen, to the ardent young Buddhist planning to paddle his kayak to Seattle in time for the Dalai Lama’s visit there, to the married teachers who may have less in common than is apparent. Despite Miles’ distrust of his brother’s rehabilitation, and Clive’s personal concerns that he’s going crazy (it seems animals have begun talking to him—and they have nothing pleasant to say), Cold Storage soon embraces the ex-con to its collective bosom.
As he did in his Cecil Younger detective series, Straley here makes the Alaska environment as much a palpable character as any of his make-believe town dwellers and disruptive interlopers. For the most part, his imagery is evocative—fogs rolling in off the coastlines, skies flaring blue and silver on clear mornings, rains to freshen a stale weekend. However, the author isn’t blind to the troubles and discouragements that can afflict such a remote outpost as Cold Storage. At one point, Miles muses on the psychological state of his birthplace:
In any northern village there is a darkness lurking: the differing terrors of childhood; the men who have victimized children and inoculated them with dread that will last for the rest of their lives; the refugees from family wars who are as shell-shocked as any soldier on the front. Some grow up swearing they’ll never again end up in that situation, but most do. Some, from sexually battered families, know no other emotional territory and can’t leave. In happy circumstances, they feel like foreigners whose papers have been revoked; they’re always waiting for the knock from the secret police to take them back to their real lives. There are more than 700 villages in Alaska. No matter how much oil lay in the ground on the north slope and no matter how wisely it was allocated, it was at times hard for Miles to imagine how a twentieth century mind could navigate a Paleolithic world without a lot of chemical coaxing. Most of the people in Cold Storage drank, some of them lived alone and avoided human contact, but all of them periodically became unhinged and ended up in Miles’s clinic.
There’s another, later scene that finds one person struggling to explain to somebody else that every good film (and every fine novel, for that matter) features a storytelling arc, over the course of which characters change as a result of forces integral to the plot. Straley clearly comprehends this rule, for there are significant changes brewed up in his new novel. Pretty much everyone is affected. Especially Miles McMahon, who turns out to be the principal player here, though that’s not obvious from the outset. When disaster strikes in the denouement, it’s Miles—the persistently unsuccessful salmon fisherman, the person most literally charged with maintaining the health of his community—who’s called upon to thwart the triumph of tragedy.
Straley relates in an author’s note that he intended Cold Storage, Alaska to be “a tribute to one of my favorite genres: screwball comedy.” And it’s a fact that there’s considerable humor in these pages. (I had to periodically remind myself that this book was not concocted by the same guys who gave us the 1990s Alaska-set TV hit Northern Exposure, though it might well have been.) It’s also true that this poetic, often-tender work—rather reminiscent of Richard Russo’s small-town narratives (Empire Falls, etc.)—could be shelved in bookstores under General Fiction as justifiably as under Crime Fiction. Yet illegalities provoke much of the action taking place here, and like so many exceptional works in this genre, Cold Storage, Alaska shows that extreme circumstances can occasionally force people to be stronger and more resilient than they thought possible. Straley accomplishes all of this with a bare minimum of violence and not a serial killer in sight. An admirable result, indeed.