John Straley, in his office at the Sitka Public Defender. With up to 50 cases in play at any given time, Straley says the work "can be rewarding, but also heartbreaking." (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

John Straley, in his office at the Sitka Public Defender. With up to 50 cases in play at any given time, Straley says the work “can be rewarding, but also heartbreaking.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

One of Alaska’s most well-known writers is finally quitting his day job.

John Straley has published nine novels, a book of poetry, numerous essays, and served as the state’s Writer Laureate.

But Straley built his reputation in Alaskan letters as a moonlighter. For the last 31 years he’s been drawing a paycheck as a full-time criminal defense investigator.

He retired in August. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey paid John Straley a visit on final day of work.

Downloadable audio.

It’s got to be pretty great sometimes, you know, introducing yourself to someone and saying, Yeah, I’m an investigator.

Bacall – So, you’re a private detective? I didn’t know they existed except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors.

Ouch. That’s Lauren Bacall, of course, playing socialite Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep. And this is Bogart, playing Phillip Marlowe, with about the best comeback possible under the circumstances.

Bogart – Well, I’m not very tall, either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie, and carry a tennis racket.
Bacall – I doubt if even that would help.

Ouch. Again.

“No, that doesn’t happen very often,” says John Straley.

Straley says that when he’s investigating a case in Sitka, most people don’t know he’s a novelist — they haven’t read his books, and they don’t follow the news about who is or isn’t the state’s Writer Laureate.

“But it can be fascinating. It can be emotionally rewarding. But it can also be emotionally trying, and heartbreaking.”

A criminal defense investigator gathers and analyzes evidence to be used at trial, from the perspective of the accused. Straley’s been doing this since his first case in 1984, sometimes in private practice, and for the last ten years at least, full-time with the Public Defender Agency. And when someone’s in trouble, the conversations are serious. There’s not much banter.

Bogart and Bacall were probably the exception.

“Well, that’s one of the things that I love about the job. I meet people that I wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet, and people open up to me, and I get to talk about substantial and important things. And I really like most of the people that I work with. I admire and empathize with most of the people that I get a chance to meet.”

Straley says the details of his cases don’t appear in his novels, but do serve as inspiration. They’re sort of a framework for his fiction, just like the communities of Southeast Alaska create the quasi-reality of the setting.

The very first page of his first novel, The Woman Who Married a Bear, describes a Sitka that seems very close to actuality, but over the course of the story looks more and more filtered, like an instagram.

Straley says this is the nature of fiction.

“Real crime that I experience in my work as a private investigator is always so much more complicated. Reality is so much more complicated. There’s always so much more of a gray area. And in stories, you always make it work out faster. It’s always faster-paced and you always have more moral certainty in the story — well, my books don’t have as much moral certainty as best sellers, but the story moves along faster. The decisions are easier to make in a story. The decisions in real life are agonizing.”

And the big decision today, as Straley packs up his office, is what to keep and what to get rid of.

“My box is over there with my chaps and my PhD robe. I haven’t shod a horse in a while. An Obama bobble-head — in the box!”

Straley used to be a horseshoer, one of the few people raised in New York City to take up that line of work. He takes down the bead curtain across his door and gives it to me, a gift for the radio station.

His wife, humpback whale biologist Jan Straley, has built him a new writing studio beside their beachfront home in Sitka. John’s got three books in the pipeline: A poetry collection, another in The Woman Who Married a Bear series featuring detective Cecil Younger, and a profile of Sitka veterinarian Burgess Bauder. One of John’s essays will also appear in a new book this fall edited by Jan, about the marine biologist Ed Ricketts.

John Straley says he’s always written about what he knows. He’s got all the crime he needs for more stories, and never has to work another case.

But there’s always a chance that, now that he’s retired, he might leave the crime fiction genre.

“I’m going to write a whole series about a guy who sleeps late.”

But that guy wouldn’t get to go around introducing himself as a writer of detective fiction.

Bogart – We’ll take up the question of you and I when the race is over. The only trouble is we could’ve…
Bacall – Yes. The only trouble is we could have had a lot of fun if you weren’t a detective.