Travel the Pacific Northwest with Five Mystery Authors
The Pacific Northwest is much like the mystery genre. It’s vast and diverse and has something for everyone. Just as mysteries range from gentle whodunits with no violence to graphic depictions of serial killers, the Pacific Northwest is a region of uncharted forest alongside cosmopolitan cities. This provides plenty of dark corners where killers can hide.
As a longtime resident of the area, I love a good mystery set in our corner of the world. Here’s a sampling of five local authors who use our biggest cities and lonely wilderness as important backdrops to crime.
- No list of Pacific Northwest mystery authors can be complete without J.A. Jance. One of our most beloved authors, she launched her Beaumont series in 1985. Second Watch, which came out in 2014, is book number twenty-one in the series but can be read as a standalone. The novel is set primarily in Seattle, where J.P. Beaumont has worked for years as a private investigator. The characters also travel to nearby iconic locations. J.A. Jance fills her pages with descriptions of our stunning region, from the small Bavarian village of Leavenworth in the Cascade Mountain Range to Whidbey Island—famous for Penn Cove Mussels. Second Watch is a gentle version of Washington State’s largest city and a marvelous introduction to Seattle and the surrounding area.
Second Watch is also a standout in Jance’s prolific career. J.P. Beaumont, an aging detective, finally faces knee replacement. Waking in a drug-induced state after surgery, he finds himself visited by ghosts. Both the lieutenant from his Vietnam days and the victim of an unsolved case make appearances, pushing Beaumont to dig into his painful past. Jance brings the past into the present through the convention of drug-induced hallucinations. Though this is a trip down memory lane, the dead speak directly to Beaumont, a haunting reminder of how often past events inform the future.
- G.M. Ford also sets his gritty private eye novels in Seattle. Published in 2017, Family Values is his tenth Leo Waterman Mystery. Ford’s Seattle is not the picture-perfect Emerald City, sparkling on the edge of the Sound. The cityscape for Ford is as complex as his plotlines. From the expensive mansions in Magnolia to the oil-streaked Duwamish Waterway, Ford provides readers with an authentic picture of our largest city. Ford deftly sprinkles local businesses and specific, often lesser-known places throughout the novel, making Ford’s Seattle one residents will recognize and visitors will delight in.
Ford’s choice to include the darker, dirtier side of Seattle resonates with his noir writing style. Seattle’s history includes Prohibition era speakeasies, racial segregation, and riots. Full of corruption and back alley handshake deals, Seattle’s history birthed Ford’s protagonist. Reliant on the street people endemic to Seattle’s city streets, Leo Waterman knows that despite the beauty of the place he lives in, darkness lies around every corner.
- Next we head south to the second-largest city in the Pacific Northwest. There we find Chelsea Cain and her suspenseful Archie Sheridan & Gretchen Lowell thriller series. Starting in 2007 with Heartsick, Cain introduces us to police detective Sheridan and serial killer Gretchen Lowell. She also introduces readers to Portland, Oregon. Cain’s characters are as distinctly Northwest as the neighborhoods she describes. She manages to capture the flavor of not just the physically distinct locations in Portland, but also the quirky nature of its citizens.
The Pacific Northwest is notorious for breeding serial killers, from the Green River Killer to Ted Bundy. But Cain’s decision to put a gender-bending twist on the serial killer makes Gretchen Lowell all the more disturbing. A rash of recent killings brings Archie Sheridan, a damaged police detective, back from medical leave and he invites Susan, a young, pink-haired newspaper reporter, along for the ride.
- By some definitions, the Pacific Northwest stretches far beyond the U.S. border, all the way into southeast Alaska. The fourth book comes to us from Canada. The Lost Ones by Vancouver author Sheena Kamal debuted in 2017. This novel gives us the dark and brooding west coast of North America, the perfect background for her twisty psychological thriller. From the rain-drenched streets of Vancouver to the snow-filled interior, then out to the secluded beaches of Vancouver Island, Kamal takes us on a roller coaster ride. Her descriptions bring us into the mysterious nature of the landscape, making the Pacific Northwest a separate character—one that adds to the conflict and dangers the protagonist must overcome.
Kamal’s protagonist, Nora, is a dark and dangerous Canadian Lisbeth Salandar. The desperate parents of a missing teen come to Nora for help. Though she finds people for a living, it is Nora’s history as the missing teenager’s biological mother that spurs her investigation. With a poignant reminder that indigenous women and girls can disappear from our midst with little more than a ripple, Kamal shows us a side to the region where we won’t want to wander alone.
- The broadest definition of the Pacific Northwest stretches all the way to Idaho. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich expands not only the boundaries of our region, but also the boundaries of the mystery genre. The dreamlike quality of Ruskovich’s storytelling—interwoven with imagery of the rugged, tree-filled, snowbound, at once idyllic, but turned-deadly-on-a-dime geography—makes me fall in love with my corner of the United States all over again.
The wild Northwestern U.S. contains millions of unpopulated acres of forest so dense it is difficult to walk through. Lumber roads cut through like scar tissue up mountains inaccessible in the winter without a hardy soul with a snowplow to clear them. Ruskovich’s characters are as unknowable as the landscape she sets them in. From the rusted truck where a singular tragedy happened to the deadly waters of a once placid lake, Ruskovich places violence just beneath the astonishing beauty.
Elena Hartwell’s writing career began in the theater, where she also worked as a director, designer, producer, and educator. Productions of her scripts have been performed in the U.S. and abroad. She is the author of the Eddie Shoes Mystery Series. The third installment, Three Strikes, You’re Dead, released from Camel Press on April 1, 2018. She lives in North Bend, Washington, with her husband. For more information, go to www.elenahartwell.com.