Taking a walk on the wild side ... in Seattle

The 'wholesome' city has become the murder-mystery capital of the United States. By Andrew Gumbel

"Luther Little drove dead bodies around Seattle the way some people drove pizzas, his primary mission, at least in his own mind, to make delivery before the goods got cold." Thus begins Catfish Cafe, the latest in Earl Emerson's series of Northwestern crime mysteries.

This is a book with all the ingredients of classic noir: the throw-away wise- cracking style, the focus on the seamy side of the big city, and a cast of characters that starts with a morgue employee and goes on to include a teenage prostitute and an array of seedy villains, as well as the flawed protagonist of the series, police detective Thomas Black. The title alone encapsulates the genre's backstreet poetry so strongly you can almost smell it.

We've seen all this before, of course, in the scuzzy depths of Los Angeles, or Miami, or the swamps of southern Louisiana. But Seattle? A more wholesome US city would be hard to imagine, with its romance of the great outdoors, its civilised coffee bars and street markets, and its growing army of white-bread whiz-kids growing rich off the cyberspace industry. What kind of setting for a crime novel can this be?

Evidently, a promising one. Seattle has taken off in the mystery world like no other location in the United States. Wander around the generous mystery section of the Elliot Bay Book Company in the heart of downtown, and bright orange "local author" tags jump out at you from all sides.

There are police procedurals, forensic thrillers and cutesy old-fashioned whodunits, whose heroes tramp doggedly around Seattle's hilltop neighbourhoods and out into the wooded islands and himmering mountain vistas of Puget Sound.

Earl Emerson, who by day is a lieutenant in the Seattle fire department, is one of the more popular, and more accomplished, authors in this vein. JA Jance is also a brisk seller, a transplanted southwesterner with another cop for a hero called JP Beaumont. GM Ford's Leo Waterman has some of the complexity and comic levity of John D MacDonald's famous Florida protagonist Travis McGee, haring off on the trail of environmental mayhem (in Who the Hell Is Wanda Fuca) or hanging out with the lowlifes of America's original Skid Row (in Bum's Rush).

The list goes on: the high-tech forensics of Sergeant Lou Boldt in Ripley Pearson's books, such as The Angel Maker; the Fish and Wildlife Service agent Venus Diamond in Skye Kathleen Moody's books; or Richard Hoyt's all-hiking, all-fishing private eye John Denson.

On the soft-boiled end of the spectrum you can follow the adventures of Judith Flynn, Mary Daheim's sleuthing bed-and-breakfast owner, or Pam Nilsen, an academic working at a lesbian printing collective dreamed up by Barbara Wilson.

What do all these authors see in the place? Part of it, no doubt, is the feeling (most memorably captured by David Lynch in Twin Peaks) that behind all the wholesomeness there must surely be a sick and sordid underbelly. Part of it, too, is Seattle's very real place in the annals of crime: the serial rapist and murderer Ted Bundy came from here, and so, too, did the notorious Green River Killer, whose victims washed up in a waterway just to the south of the city.

Several authors focus on local concerns: Seattle's high population of teenage vagrants, who in turn fuel one of the highest per capita consumptions of heroin in the United States; and the ever-expanding destruction of forests, coastal plains and animal habitats, to make way for housing developments and retirement homes.

Some of the best books examine the region's bad historical conscience. In David Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars, set on the fictional island of San Piedro in Puget Sound, the issue is the internment of the Japanese during the Second World War. In Alexie Sherman's work (one of which, Indian Killer, revolves around an outbreak of scalpings in Seattle) it is the fraught relationship between Native Americans and the overwhelmingly white settler population.

For the most part, though, Seattle gets written about simply because it is there. It is an attractive place to live, and mystery writers have been as much a part of the flow of incoming new residents as anyone else - Britain's very own Michael Dibden, author of the Aurelio Zen series, moved there a few years ago and promptly turned out Dark Specter, a thriller about a religious sect set partly on one of the remoter San Juan islands.

On top of that, it rains a lot and Seattlites like to read, so there is a large market right on the doorstep.

The rather cold economic logic explains, perhaps, why nobody has yet managed to reinvent Seattle on the page in quite the way, say, that Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy reinvented Los Angeles. Not that the city lacks for atmospherics: there's the cold, clammy feel of the long winters; the ghostly occasional apparitions of Mount Rainier to the south; the shimmer of the Cascades to the east and the Olympic mountains to the west; and the inescapable expanses of water on all sides with their ever-changing play of light and potentially treacherous mood swings.

Not a bad place, in fact, to commit a murder.

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