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Baby's First Felony

Paperback
$16.95 US
5"W x 7.5"H x 0.76"D   | 8 oz | 36 per carton
On sale Jun 04, 2019 | 288 Pages | 978-1-64129-063-0
Shamus Award–winner John Straley returns to his critically acclaimed Cecil Younger detective series, set in Sitka, Alaska, a land of perfect beauty and not-so-perfect locals.

Criminal defense investigator Cecil Younger spends his days coaching would-be felons on how to avoid incriminating themselves. He even likes most of the rough characters who seek his services. So when Sherrie, a returning client, asks him to track down some evidence to clear her of a domestic violence charge, Cecil agrees. Maybe he’ll find something that will get her abusive boyfriend locked up for good.

Cecil treks out to the shady apartment complex only to discover the “evidence” is a large pile of cash—fifty thousand dollars, to be exact. That is how Cecil finds himself in violation of one of his own maxims: Nothing good comes of walking around with a lot of someone else’s money.

In this case, “nothing good” turns out to be a deep freeze full of drug-stuffed fish, a murder witnessed at close range, and a kidnapping—his teenage daughter, Blossom, is snatched as collateral for his cooperation. The reluctant, deeply unlucky investigator turns to an unlikely source for help: the misfit gang of clients he’s helped to defend over the years. Together, they devise a plan to free Blossom and restore order to Sitka. But when your only hope for justice lies in the hands of a group of criminals, things don’t always go according to plan.
  • NOMINEE | 2018
    Shamus Award for Best PI Novel
Finalist for the 2019 Shamus Award

Praise for Baby's First Felony


“Straley knows how to wrap deadly violence in a bubble of black humor that suits the novel's beautiful but harsh setting, where whales open their maws to dine on oceans of salmon fry and men kill one another while ravens fly overhead, screaming with laughter.” 
The New York Times  

"Inimitable."
—The Seattle Times 

"Happily, both Straley and Younger are back, and they are in fine form. Not only that, but Soho Press has republished the whole series with striking new matching covers." 
—Anchorage Daily News

"It started like a heavy-footed drag racer hitting the gas pedal before the light turned green and it was a Gonzo joy ride from there . . . Buy it, shut off your devices, call in sick, and get a babysitter for however long it will take you to read Straley's latest page-turner, Baby's First Felony."
—Daily Sitka Sentinel

"Straley writes with a poet's ear and a quirky, Zen sense of humor . . . The story is at times brutally violent, but never gratuitous, and is as entertaining as it is moving and honest."
—Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

"Most welcome . . . It’s good to have Cecil back."
—South Florida Sun-Sentinel

"What a wild wild ride. Straley grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. You think left and he goes right. You think up and he goes down. Cecil Younger is a continuously great but flawed and wobbly investigating hero."
Willy Vlautin, author of The Motel Life, Northline, and The Free

"Masterfully balances semi-comic crime-caper elements with pitch-black criminal activities."
—Seattle Review of Books

"It has been 17 years since the last Cecil Younger novel from John Straley. That’s a long hiatus, to be sure, but Baby’s First Felony proves more than worth the wait, as Alaska’s erstwhile writer laureate dusts off his suspense fiction chops to craft the finest installment of the series thus far."  
BookPage, Top Pick in Mystery

"Straley humanizes slapstick mayhem in his exceptional seventh Cecil Younger mystery . . . Hilarious."  
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review 

"After 17 years, Straley checks back in with Cecil Younger and the citizens of Sitka, Alaska, and finds them as wacky as ever and even more murderous." 
—Kirkus Reviews

"Excellent."
—Library Journal

"John Straley is an Alaskan treasure. Baby’s First Felony is a page-turning, darkly hilarious murder mystery turned upside down. With the help of a crazy cast of characters, investigator Cecil Younger is taking on the criminal underbelly of an Alaska seaside town, even as he faces the equally terrifying trials of parenting a teenager. As always, Straley has brought his unflinching eye, compassionate heart and lyrical voice to the story. Northern noir at its best."
—Eowyn Ivey, Pulitzer finalist and New York Times bestselling author of The Snow Child

“Straley doesn't write like anybody. He carefully lays out all the lines that the story and the protagonist aren't traditionally supposed to cross and then gleefully blows through every single one of them. Baby's First Felony is a thrilling surprise from start to finish. Seriously dark and funny as hell. I'll be giving Christmas copies to friends with good taste.”
—Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender mysteries

"A new book by John is always a cause for celebration here in Southeast Alaska, where he gets our home so right on so many levels, from the rain and the ravens on the telephone lines to the crystal mountain sunrises. But the thing that John does, or one thing that he does better than anyone, is bring the world’s issues—the dark and dangerous and ugly—into this beautiful remote place way out on the outer coast of North America, and then allows characters like Cecil Younger—who, like so many Alaskans, is quirky, kind, smart, brave, and so crazy he is sane—to solve them. John writes with a poet’s heart, a comedian’s timing, the real-life experience of a criminal investigator, and the soul of a great storyteller. He breaks my heart and heals it again in every book. John’s writing is like a combination of James Lee Burke, Ken Kesey, and William Stafford. At the same time, he could be a genre unto himself."
—Heather Lende, New York Times bestselling author of If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska

"Cecil Younger clutches his laid-back sense of humor like a life ring as he descends into the underworld of his genial Alaska fishing town. I love the way he wryly watches himself make every mistake in the manual for low-life klutzes he helped write—it’s what makes this romp on the dark side so much fun."
—Tom Kizzia, New York Times bestselling author or Pilgrim's Wilderness

"In this seventh book in a series, Cecil Younger, an investigator with Sitka, Alaska Public Defenders Office, finds himself on the other side of the law when he tries to find and free his 13-year-old kidnapped daughter. After he enlists the help of two former clients, one of whose last name 'Boomer' aptly describes his criminal specialty, the mayhem begins. This series and book are filled with warm and wacky characters. The title is reference to a basic primer the Public Defender is writing on what to do or not do if you are arrested, such as 'When talking on the jail phone, Pig Latin is not an unbreakable code.' I anxiously await the next book in this series to find out if and how Cecil gets beyond his legal problems and to meet up again with some sweet and funny characters."
—Lynn Carney, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, WI

Praise for the Cecil Younger investigations

“Mr. Straley’s prose continues to dazzle . . . His word-pictures have a hallucinatory brilliance appropriate . . . to the eerie beauty of the Alaskan landscape.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Mr. Straley writes with such brio.”
—The New York Times 

“Straley isn’t prolific, but when he does publish a book it’s a gem . . . It’s always a pleasure to read Straley’s vivid studies of these folks—the slightly cracked, rugged and very funny characters of the Far North.”
—The Seattle Times

 
“The voice is so original that is can only belong to John Straley . . . Definitely up there with the great ones.”
—Chicago Tribune

“Thoroughly enjoyable and slightly wacko . . . Ironic humor reminiscent of the Coen brothers and violence worthy of Quentin Tarantino.”
—The Boston Globe

 
“A fascinating Alaskan setting, great characters, a highly unusual plot and remarkably good writing. It’s a winner.”
—Tony Hillerman, New York Times bestselling author of the Leaphorn and Chee novels
 
“Like the Coen brothers on literary speed, John Straley is among the very best stylists of his generation.”
Ken Bruen, Shamus Award–winning author of The Guard
 
"Now and then a writer dares to flout the rules and in so doing, carves out a niche that belongs to him alone. John Straley's novels are like no others."
—San Diego Tribune
 
“Straley is one of the best prose stylists to emerge from the genre in a long time, and his evocation of the chilly, dangerous landscape and climate effectively sets a foreboding tone.”
San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Absorbing and convincing . . . Straley’s a real writer.”
The Washington Post Book World
 
“Straley’s done the impossible. He’s reinvented the private eye novel.”
The Denver Post
The youngest of five children, John Straley was born in Redwood City, California, in 1953. He received a BA in English from the University of Washington and, at the urging of his parents, a certificate of completion in horse shoeing. John never saw himself living in Alaska (where there are no horses left to shoe), but when his wife, Jan, a prominent whale biologist, announced she was taking a job in Sitka, the two headed north and never left. John worked for thirty years as a criminal defense investigator in Sitka, and many of the characters that fill his books were inspired by his work. Now retired, he lives with his wife in a bright green house on the beach and writes in his weather-tight office overlooking Old Sitka Rocks. The former Writer Laureate of Alaska, he is the author of ten novels. View titles by John Straley
If it please the Court: Your Honors, I stand before you today to tell the story of what happened. My words are not to be offered as any form of excuse, not even as an explanation, but I want to tell you the entire experience as it happened to me. Then, of course, you will be free to decide what you will.
     It was the year of a hundred and six consecutive days of rain, and I had lost my daughter to her cell phone. The rain began at the end of summer, but the days were indistinguishable from late fall, each blending one to another in a slurry of rainfall, brightened only by a sunbreak a few minutes each day. The first completely dry day did not occur until December, when we had a cold high-pressure system move in that brought freezing temperatures that turned Swan Lake into a mirror of ice.
     People’s moods in Sitka, Alaska, were irritable both during and after the rain. This story starts in September before the darkest of the dark days had hit. This was still during the period of the jokes and well before the deaths and mayhem.
     Todd had been asking me about the meaning of the Buddhist concept of “right relationship.” Now, Your Honors, I know you might think I’m already beginning to drift, but bear with me, for this turns out to be one of the more slippery of the foundational stones of the eight-fold path—not that there are any real bodhisattvas in this cast of characters. But there are, as they say, many ways to get lost in this world, and “wrong relationship” is one of the most common.
     As you may remember from the previous briefing, Todd lives in my house and has for many years. He was involved in the circumstances of this crime, a fact that I still regret. He and I are both now in our late fifties, and we relate to each other as brothers, even though there was a time when he was my ward, and I essentially had legal custody of him after his parents passed away. Todd rests comfortably on the solidly affected end of the Asperger’s scale. Recently he has been learning to tell jokes as part of his occupational therapy. Joke telling, it turns out, helps create a kind of ready-made emotional relationship for people with autism. They say funny things, people laugh, display emotion and the autistic person laughs in response to the other person’s laughter and presto: without having a clue of what an inner emotional world is like, they have entered into an emotional relationship.
     Todd has lived his life with a series of obsessions. He has been fascinated with the patterns on manhole covers and the mechanics of how whales swim across the ocean. He has memorized the populations of all the major cities in the world and knows the make and model of almost every audio recording device ever manufactured. He loves animals and children, and his current interests include Buddhism and telling jokes.
     Todd and I were walking back from work. I had walked from the Public Defender Agency, where I worked as a criminal defense investigator. I had stopped off at the jail to see one of our clients who had been locked up, and then I went over to the senior center to pick up Todd from his job in the kitchen. The rain was easing up to a light pebbling on the lake, and a few ducks were waddling in the middle of the street where someone had dumped a full bag of chips out of their car. This was irritating to the drivers along Lake Street but not enough for anyone to blow their horn, because it appeared that most everyone still enjoyed watching the ducks.
     “Tell me your joke today,” I said.
     Jane Marie, my wife, had been keeping on me to vet the jokes Todd was learning, for since it was known that Todd was telling jokes, people all over town were happy to tell him new ones, and Jane Marie worried some were not appropriate for all audiences and Todd would get himself in trouble. There had been an incident a few years ago when a little girl was crying outside the swimming pool, and she asked Todd if he could take her in to help her change into her suit, and he said he couldn’t and that he was sorry, and when the little girl asked why, Todd explained that the locker room was for women only because, “Vaginas were generally considered private and were only really comfortable being exposed to other females in situations such as locker rooms or some public restrooms.” Well, the lifeguard on duty heard the last of this, and there was a small-town kerfuffle about his choice of language, and Todd couldn’t go to the swimming pool without me for a while, and it caused Jane Marie some heartburn in the joke department.
     Todd took a deep breath and straightened his glasses. “A little boy was sitting on the curb in town eating a big handful of chocolate bars, one after another, and an old man comes up to him and says, ‘You know, young man, you really shouldn’t eat so much chocolate. It’s not good for you,’ and the little boy says, ‘I don’t know, my grandpa lived to be one hundred and three.’ The old man said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, did your grandpa eat a lot of chocolate?’ and the little boy said, ‘No but he learned to mind his own fucking business.’”
     By this time, we were through the roundabout and to the only stoplight downtown, and the wind was hitting us straight on without obstruction from the east. Todd’s glasses were now a haze of mist, dotted with raindrops. Though we could have crossed without danger to get undercover on the opposite corner, we waited in the soaking wind because Todd honors all laws.
     “It’s a good joke,” I said. “If you tell it with anyone under twelve years old around, just change the ‘fuck’ to ‘damn.’ You’ll be fine.”
     Todd nodded. He had taken many similar notes and understood the F-word problem.
     “Cecil?” he asked.
     “What?” I responded.
     “Why was the little boy eating chocolate bars sitting on the curb of the street?”
     The light changed but just before we stepped down off the curb I considered his question. I never like to brush him off or give him the impression I’m not giving his inquiries full consideration.
     “It’s just funnier. I guess.” We hurried across the street.
     By the time we got home the house was in a full frenzy of pre-dinner homework bickering: Jane Marie was stirring a pot of boiling red sauce, and Blossom was standing at the head of a bare table staring into her phone.
     “Cecil, will you talk to your daughter?” was my wife’s greeting as I topped the stairs to our living room/kitchen, which looked out over the channel. Blossom did not acknowledge my existence.
     “Mi familia!” I said as happily as I could. “Daughter, is there trouble in paradise?”
     “Mom is being a bitch,” Blossom said, without raising her heavily mascaraed eyes from her phone, which she appeared to be drumming with her thumbs.
     Jane Marie slapped the spoon into the sauce and started to make a move around the stove like a professional wrestler about to climb the turnbuckle to go for a body slam.
     “Now hold on . . . every one. Hold on.” I moved in front of Jane Marie to gather her up in my arms. “You are such a bitch. I knew that the first time I met you.” I kissed her on the lips.
      “She can’t call me that, Cecil.” Jane Marie’s eyes were tired and sad, but every muscle in her body was coiled. She was ready to break.
     “Listen,” I said, “let me set the table. Blossom, would you please pick some dinner music that will not cause us to slit our wrists, and could we have a meal that does not involve having the police called?” Blossom grunted and sat down and started scrolling through her music.
     “You are such a tool,” she muttered.
     “Thank you sweetheart,” I said.
     The advantage of asking Blossom to provide the music for dinner was she had to place her phone in a cradle beside the stereo system. She chose the Mountain Goats album All Hail West Texas because she knew I had once said that I liked it, but she set the volume far too high, knowing it would irritate the shit out of her mother, particularly the chorus of “Hail Satan!” in the first song. Jane Marie sat gritting her teeth as I scooped the sauce onto her plate, and I signaled Todd to turn down the volume.
     To give a little more background to the tension in our family, about nine months ago a girl from the high school had dropped out and then gone missing. Her name was Melissa Bean. She had twin baby girls. We had known her and had helped her with her children. We still took care of the babies when the grandparents were overwhelmed. Melissa had fallen away in the last few months before her disappearance. She had been sullen and quiet, angry most of the time. “Drugs,” her parents said. She was never home; then there were new friends and strange calls. She was always tired, seemed scared of something but got snappy if you asked her about it. Her mom was worried that her daughter was growing so thin. Finally, after the Permanent Fund checks, our oil money payments, came out she was gone. No rumors. No body. It was a nightmare for Jane Marie and the many mothers of sullen teenage girls.
     I was worried about Blossom as well, but I always worried. I’m now a fifty-six-year-old father of a teenager. I’m always tired too. I don’t see any of the obvious signs of drug use. Blossom is smart and bookish. She reads a lot. She makes films with her phone. She stays up late watching movies and talking to her nerdy friends. She likes to argue and cares passionately about the things she likes. The druggy people I knew—and I knew a lot of them—didn’t give a whit about John Darnielle, or whether he sounded better solo or with his band, or if the whole “lo-fi” phenomenon was bullshit or not, but for some reason Blossom did. Now, is she in danger of becoming a pretentious thirteen-year-old hipster? Probably, but Your Honors, cut me some parental slack here. This is Sitka, Alaska, and being a tad pretentious or being a lot pretentious when you are thirteen is a far cry from being a meth head swallowed up by the drug underworld, and preferable to that as well.
     But Jane Marie worried about it, night and day, particularly since Blossom’s dear little playmate Emily dyed her hair blue and, in a twist on her best friend’s name, changed her own name to Thistle.
     “Cecil, can Thistle spend the night tomorrow?” Calling us by our first names was another new development that drove Jane Marie crazy.
     “It’s fine with me.” I looked at Jane Marie and she nodded down at her food. “Is it okay with her mom?”
     “Ah . . . she doesn’t live with her mom anymore. She lives someplace else, with another family, I think.”
     “What?” Jane Marie put down her fork. “Honey, what happened with Emily?”
     “I don’t know. She just moved out. It happens.” Now they were both looking at their food.
     Todd asked for some more spaghetti, and I dished him some in silence.
     “Blossom . . .” Jane Marie’s voice was starting to crack, “when did this happen?”
     “I dunno.”
     “Jesus Christ,” Jane Marie said softly and a tear traced down her cheek.
     “Why are you mad at me? I didn’t do anything,” Blossom said.
     “No one said you did, honeybunny,” I said.
     “I’m sorry,” Jane Marie said. She got up from the table and put her half-full plate of crab pasta in the sink and walked back into the office. John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats were singing “Color in Your Cheeks” as Todd asked if he could have another piece of French bread, and I told him he could.
     Your Honors, you know from the previous briefing that I have a criminal history. You know that I am an alcoholic. At the time of this incident I had not had a drink in twenty years. All of my earlier offenses, the offenses that caused me to lose my driving privileges and tarnish my record were all alcohol related. What you may not know is that I was also a child of alcoholics, though my parents were not as extreme or as dramatic in their drinking as I turned out to be. But as a child of an alcoholic, I grew up with a need to please, and a need to try and to set the chaos right, to sweep up the broken glass and smooth over the arguments. Some have suggested that was the reason I became a criminal defense investigator. I don’t know about that, but I’m sure it helped when it came to being the father of a teenager.

About

Shamus Award–winner John Straley returns to his critically acclaimed Cecil Younger detective series, set in Sitka, Alaska, a land of perfect beauty and not-so-perfect locals.

Criminal defense investigator Cecil Younger spends his days coaching would-be felons on how to avoid incriminating themselves. He even likes most of the rough characters who seek his services. So when Sherrie, a returning client, asks him to track down some evidence to clear her of a domestic violence charge, Cecil agrees. Maybe he’ll find something that will get her abusive boyfriend locked up for good.

Cecil treks out to the shady apartment complex only to discover the “evidence” is a large pile of cash—fifty thousand dollars, to be exact. That is how Cecil finds himself in violation of one of his own maxims: Nothing good comes of walking around with a lot of someone else’s money.

In this case, “nothing good” turns out to be a deep freeze full of drug-stuffed fish, a murder witnessed at close range, and a kidnapping—his teenage daughter, Blossom, is snatched as collateral for his cooperation. The reluctant, deeply unlucky investigator turns to an unlikely source for help: the misfit gang of clients he’s helped to defend over the years. Together, they devise a plan to free Blossom and restore order to Sitka. But when your only hope for justice lies in the hands of a group of criminals, things don’t always go according to plan.

Awards

  • NOMINEE | 2018
    Shamus Award for Best PI Novel

Praise

Finalist for the 2019 Shamus Award

Praise for Baby's First Felony


“Straley knows how to wrap deadly violence in a bubble of black humor that suits the novel's beautiful but harsh setting, where whales open their maws to dine on oceans of salmon fry and men kill one another while ravens fly overhead, screaming with laughter.” 
The New York Times  

"Inimitable."
—The Seattle Times 

"Happily, both Straley and Younger are back, and they are in fine form. Not only that, but Soho Press has republished the whole series with striking new matching covers." 
—Anchorage Daily News

"It started like a heavy-footed drag racer hitting the gas pedal before the light turned green and it was a Gonzo joy ride from there . . . Buy it, shut off your devices, call in sick, and get a babysitter for however long it will take you to read Straley's latest page-turner, Baby's First Felony."
—Daily Sitka Sentinel

"Straley writes with a poet's ear and a quirky, Zen sense of humor . . . The story is at times brutally violent, but never gratuitous, and is as entertaining as it is moving and honest."
—Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

"Most welcome . . . It’s good to have Cecil back."
—South Florida Sun-Sentinel

"What a wild wild ride. Straley grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. You think left and he goes right. You think up and he goes down. Cecil Younger is a continuously great but flawed and wobbly investigating hero."
Willy Vlautin, author of The Motel Life, Northline, and The Free

"Masterfully balances semi-comic crime-caper elements with pitch-black criminal activities."
—Seattle Review of Books

"It has been 17 years since the last Cecil Younger novel from John Straley. That’s a long hiatus, to be sure, but Baby’s First Felony proves more than worth the wait, as Alaska’s erstwhile writer laureate dusts off his suspense fiction chops to craft the finest installment of the series thus far."  
BookPage, Top Pick in Mystery

"Straley humanizes slapstick mayhem in his exceptional seventh Cecil Younger mystery . . . Hilarious."  
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review 

"After 17 years, Straley checks back in with Cecil Younger and the citizens of Sitka, Alaska, and finds them as wacky as ever and even more murderous." 
—Kirkus Reviews

"Excellent."
—Library Journal

"John Straley is an Alaskan treasure. Baby’s First Felony is a page-turning, darkly hilarious murder mystery turned upside down. With the help of a crazy cast of characters, investigator Cecil Younger is taking on the criminal underbelly of an Alaska seaside town, even as he faces the equally terrifying trials of parenting a teenager. As always, Straley has brought his unflinching eye, compassionate heart and lyrical voice to the story. Northern noir at its best."
—Eowyn Ivey, Pulitzer finalist and New York Times bestselling author of The Snow Child

“Straley doesn't write like anybody. He carefully lays out all the lines that the story and the protagonist aren't traditionally supposed to cross and then gleefully blows through every single one of them. Baby's First Felony is a thrilling surprise from start to finish. Seriously dark and funny as hell. I'll be giving Christmas copies to friends with good taste.”
—Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender mysteries

"A new book by John is always a cause for celebration here in Southeast Alaska, where he gets our home so right on so many levels, from the rain and the ravens on the telephone lines to the crystal mountain sunrises. But the thing that John does, or one thing that he does better than anyone, is bring the world’s issues—the dark and dangerous and ugly—into this beautiful remote place way out on the outer coast of North America, and then allows characters like Cecil Younger—who, like so many Alaskans, is quirky, kind, smart, brave, and so crazy he is sane—to solve them. John writes with a poet’s heart, a comedian’s timing, the real-life experience of a criminal investigator, and the soul of a great storyteller. He breaks my heart and heals it again in every book. John’s writing is like a combination of James Lee Burke, Ken Kesey, and William Stafford. At the same time, he could be a genre unto himself."
—Heather Lende, New York Times bestselling author of If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska

"Cecil Younger clutches his laid-back sense of humor like a life ring as he descends into the underworld of his genial Alaska fishing town. I love the way he wryly watches himself make every mistake in the manual for low-life klutzes he helped write—it’s what makes this romp on the dark side so much fun."
—Tom Kizzia, New York Times bestselling author or Pilgrim's Wilderness

"In this seventh book in a series, Cecil Younger, an investigator with Sitka, Alaska Public Defenders Office, finds himself on the other side of the law when he tries to find and free his 13-year-old kidnapped daughter. After he enlists the help of two former clients, one of whose last name 'Boomer' aptly describes his criminal specialty, the mayhem begins. This series and book are filled with warm and wacky characters. The title is reference to a basic primer the Public Defender is writing on what to do or not do if you are arrested, such as 'When talking on the jail phone, Pig Latin is not an unbreakable code.' I anxiously await the next book in this series to find out if and how Cecil gets beyond his legal problems and to meet up again with some sweet and funny characters."
—Lynn Carney, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, WI

Praise for the Cecil Younger investigations

“Mr. Straley’s prose continues to dazzle . . . His word-pictures have a hallucinatory brilliance appropriate . . . to the eerie beauty of the Alaskan landscape.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Mr. Straley writes with such brio.”
—The New York Times 

“Straley isn’t prolific, but when he does publish a book it’s a gem . . . It’s always a pleasure to read Straley’s vivid studies of these folks—the slightly cracked, rugged and very funny characters of the Far North.”
—The Seattle Times

 
“The voice is so original that is can only belong to John Straley . . . Definitely up there with the great ones.”
—Chicago Tribune

“Thoroughly enjoyable and slightly wacko . . . Ironic humor reminiscent of the Coen brothers and violence worthy of Quentin Tarantino.”
—The Boston Globe

 
“A fascinating Alaskan setting, great characters, a highly unusual plot and remarkably good writing. It’s a winner.”
—Tony Hillerman, New York Times bestselling author of the Leaphorn and Chee novels
 
“Like the Coen brothers on literary speed, John Straley is among the very best stylists of his generation.”
Ken Bruen, Shamus Award–winning author of The Guard
 
"Now and then a writer dares to flout the rules and in so doing, carves out a niche that belongs to him alone. John Straley's novels are like no others."
—San Diego Tribune
 
“Straley is one of the best prose stylists to emerge from the genre in a long time, and his evocation of the chilly, dangerous landscape and climate effectively sets a foreboding tone.”
San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Absorbing and convincing . . . Straley’s a real writer.”
The Washington Post Book World
 
“Straley’s done the impossible. He’s reinvented the private eye novel.”
The Denver Post

Author

The youngest of five children, John Straley was born in Redwood City, California, in 1953. He received a BA in English from the University of Washington and, at the urging of his parents, a certificate of completion in horse shoeing. John never saw himself living in Alaska (where there are no horses left to shoe), but when his wife, Jan, a prominent whale biologist, announced she was taking a job in Sitka, the two headed north and never left. John worked for thirty years as a criminal defense investigator in Sitka, and many of the characters that fill his books were inspired by his work. Now retired, he lives with his wife in a bright green house on the beach and writes in his weather-tight office overlooking Old Sitka Rocks. The former Writer Laureate of Alaska, he is the author of ten novels. View titles by John Straley

Excerpt

If it please the Court: Your Honors, I stand before you today to tell the story of what happened. My words are not to be offered as any form of excuse, not even as an explanation, but I want to tell you the entire experience as it happened to me. Then, of course, you will be free to decide what you will.
     It was the year of a hundred and six consecutive days of rain, and I had lost my daughter to her cell phone. The rain began at the end of summer, but the days were indistinguishable from late fall, each blending one to another in a slurry of rainfall, brightened only by a sunbreak a few minutes each day. The first completely dry day did not occur until December, when we had a cold high-pressure system move in that brought freezing temperatures that turned Swan Lake into a mirror of ice.
     People’s moods in Sitka, Alaska, were irritable both during and after the rain. This story starts in September before the darkest of the dark days had hit. This was still during the period of the jokes and well before the deaths and mayhem.
     Todd had been asking me about the meaning of the Buddhist concept of “right relationship.” Now, Your Honors, I know you might think I’m already beginning to drift, but bear with me, for this turns out to be one of the more slippery of the foundational stones of the eight-fold path—not that there are any real bodhisattvas in this cast of characters. But there are, as they say, many ways to get lost in this world, and “wrong relationship” is one of the most common.
     As you may remember from the previous briefing, Todd lives in my house and has for many years. He was involved in the circumstances of this crime, a fact that I still regret. He and I are both now in our late fifties, and we relate to each other as brothers, even though there was a time when he was my ward, and I essentially had legal custody of him after his parents passed away. Todd rests comfortably on the solidly affected end of the Asperger’s scale. Recently he has been learning to tell jokes as part of his occupational therapy. Joke telling, it turns out, helps create a kind of ready-made emotional relationship for people with autism. They say funny things, people laugh, display emotion and the autistic person laughs in response to the other person’s laughter and presto: without having a clue of what an inner emotional world is like, they have entered into an emotional relationship.
     Todd has lived his life with a series of obsessions. He has been fascinated with the patterns on manhole covers and the mechanics of how whales swim across the ocean. He has memorized the populations of all the major cities in the world and knows the make and model of almost every audio recording device ever manufactured. He loves animals and children, and his current interests include Buddhism and telling jokes.
     Todd and I were walking back from work. I had walked from the Public Defender Agency, where I worked as a criminal defense investigator. I had stopped off at the jail to see one of our clients who had been locked up, and then I went over to the senior center to pick up Todd from his job in the kitchen. The rain was easing up to a light pebbling on the lake, and a few ducks were waddling in the middle of the street where someone had dumped a full bag of chips out of their car. This was irritating to the drivers along Lake Street but not enough for anyone to blow their horn, because it appeared that most everyone still enjoyed watching the ducks.
     “Tell me your joke today,” I said.
     Jane Marie, my wife, had been keeping on me to vet the jokes Todd was learning, for since it was known that Todd was telling jokes, people all over town were happy to tell him new ones, and Jane Marie worried some were not appropriate for all audiences and Todd would get himself in trouble. There had been an incident a few years ago when a little girl was crying outside the swimming pool, and she asked Todd if he could take her in to help her change into her suit, and he said he couldn’t and that he was sorry, and when the little girl asked why, Todd explained that the locker room was for women only because, “Vaginas were generally considered private and were only really comfortable being exposed to other females in situations such as locker rooms or some public restrooms.” Well, the lifeguard on duty heard the last of this, and there was a small-town kerfuffle about his choice of language, and Todd couldn’t go to the swimming pool without me for a while, and it caused Jane Marie some heartburn in the joke department.
     Todd took a deep breath and straightened his glasses. “A little boy was sitting on the curb in town eating a big handful of chocolate bars, one after another, and an old man comes up to him and says, ‘You know, young man, you really shouldn’t eat so much chocolate. It’s not good for you,’ and the little boy says, ‘I don’t know, my grandpa lived to be one hundred and three.’ The old man said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, did your grandpa eat a lot of chocolate?’ and the little boy said, ‘No but he learned to mind his own fucking business.’”
     By this time, we were through the roundabout and to the only stoplight downtown, and the wind was hitting us straight on without obstruction from the east. Todd’s glasses were now a haze of mist, dotted with raindrops. Though we could have crossed without danger to get undercover on the opposite corner, we waited in the soaking wind because Todd honors all laws.
     “It’s a good joke,” I said. “If you tell it with anyone under twelve years old around, just change the ‘fuck’ to ‘damn.’ You’ll be fine.”
     Todd nodded. He had taken many similar notes and understood the F-word problem.
     “Cecil?” he asked.
     “What?” I responded.
     “Why was the little boy eating chocolate bars sitting on the curb of the street?”
     The light changed but just before we stepped down off the curb I considered his question. I never like to brush him off or give him the impression I’m not giving his inquiries full consideration.
     “It’s just funnier. I guess.” We hurried across the street.
     By the time we got home the house was in a full frenzy of pre-dinner homework bickering: Jane Marie was stirring a pot of boiling red sauce, and Blossom was standing at the head of a bare table staring into her phone.
     “Cecil, will you talk to your daughter?” was my wife’s greeting as I topped the stairs to our living room/kitchen, which looked out over the channel. Blossom did not acknowledge my existence.
     “Mi familia!” I said as happily as I could. “Daughter, is there trouble in paradise?”
     “Mom is being a bitch,” Blossom said, without raising her heavily mascaraed eyes from her phone, which she appeared to be drumming with her thumbs.
     Jane Marie slapped the spoon into the sauce and started to make a move around the stove like a professional wrestler about to climb the turnbuckle to go for a body slam.
     “Now hold on . . . every one. Hold on.” I moved in front of Jane Marie to gather her up in my arms. “You are such a bitch. I knew that the first time I met you.” I kissed her on the lips.
      “She can’t call me that, Cecil.” Jane Marie’s eyes were tired and sad, but every muscle in her body was coiled. She was ready to break.
     “Listen,” I said, “let me set the table. Blossom, would you please pick some dinner music that will not cause us to slit our wrists, and could we have a meal that does not involve having the police called?” Blossom grunted and sat down and started scrolling through her music.
     “You are such a tool,” she muttered.
     “Thank you sweetheart,” I said.
     The advantage of asking Blossom to provide the music for dinner was she had to place her phone in a cradle beside the stereo system. She chose the Mountain Goats album All Hail West Texas because she knew I had once said that I liked it, but she set the volume far too high, knowing it would irritate the shit out of her mother, particularly the chorus of “Hail Satan!” in the first song. Jane Marie sat gritting her teeth as I scooped the sauce onto her plate, and I signaled Todd to turn down the volume.
     To give a little more background to the tension in our family, about nine months ago a girl from the high school had dropped out and then gone missing. Her name was Melissa Bean. She had twin baby girls. We had known her and had helped her with her children. We still took care of the babies when the grandparents were overwhelmed. Melissa had fallen away in the last few months before her disappearance. She had been sullen and quiet, angry most of the time. “Drugs,” her parents said. She was never home; then there were new friends and strange calls. She was always tired, seemed scared of something but got snappy if you asked her about it. Her mom was worried that her daughter was growing so thin. Finally, after the Permanent Fund checks, our oil money payments, came out she was gone. No rumors. No body. It was a nightmare for Jane Marie and the many mothers of sullen teenage girls.
     I was worried about Blossom as well, but I always worried. I’m now a fifty-six-year-old father of a teenager. I’m always tired too. I don’t see any of the obvious signs of drug use. Blossom is smart and bookish. She reads a lot. She makes films with her phone. She stays up late watching movies and talking to her nerdy friends. She likes to argue and cares passionately about the things she likes. The druggy people I knew—and I knew a lot of them—didn’t give a whit about John Darnielle, or whether he sounded better solo or with his band, or if the whole “lo-fi” phenomenon was bullshit or not, but for some reason Blossom did. Now, is she in danger of becoming a pretentious thirteen-year-old hipster? Probably, but Your Honors, cut me some parental slack here. This is Sitka, Alaska, and being a tad pretentious or being a lot pretentious when you are thirteen is a far cry from being a meth head swallowed up by the drug underworld, and preferable to that as well.
     But Jane Marie worried about it, night and day, particularly since Blossom’s dear little playmate Emily dyed her hair blue and, in a twist on her best friend’s name, changed her own name to Thistle.
     “Cecil, can Thistle spend the night tomorrow?” Calling us by our first names was another new development that drove Jane Marie crazy.
     “It’s fine with me.” I looked at Jane Marie and she nodded down at her food. “Is it okay with her mom?”
     “Ah . . . she doesn’t live with her mom anymore. She lives someplace else, with another family, I think.”
     “What?” Jane Marie put down her fork. “Honey, what happened with Emily?”
     “I don’t know. She just moved out. It happens.” Now they were both looking at their food.
     Todd asked for some more spaghetti, and I dished him some in silence.
     “Blossom . . .” Jane Marie’s voice was starting to crack, “when did this happen?”
     “I dunno.”
     “Jesus Christ,” Jane Marie said softly and a tear traced down her cheek.
     “Why are you mad at me? I didn’t do anything,” Blossom said.
     “No one said you did, honeybunny,” I said.
     “I’m sorry,” Jane Marie said. She got up from the table and put her half-full plate of crab pasta in the sink and walked back into the office. John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats were singing “Color in Your Cheeks” as Todd asked if he could have another piece of French bread, and I told him he could.
     Your Honors, you know from the previous briefing that I have a criminal history. You know that I am an alcoholic. At the time of this incident I had not had a drink in twenty years. All of my earlier offenses, the offenses that caused me to lose my driving privileges and tarnish my record were all alcohol related. What you may not know is that I was also a child of alcoholics, though my parents were not as extreme or as dramatic in their drinking as I turned out to be. But as a child of an alcoholic, I grew up with a need to please, and a need to try and to set the chaos right, to sweep up the broken glass and smooth over the arguments. Some have suggested that was the reason I became a criminal defense investigator. I don’t know about that, but I’m sure it helped when it came to being the father of a teenager.

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