One of Alaska’s most prolific mystery novelists has returned to his roots. After a 17-year break, Sitka-based author John Straley has published the seventh installment in his series featuring fictional investigator Cecil Younger, Baby’s First Felony.
Note: John Straley’s novels are available anywhere books are sold. His recent nonfiction biography, Animal Nature: A Portrait of Burgess Bauder, is available in a limited edition only at Old Harbor Books in Sitka.
Although it’s been 17 years since we’ve seen Cecil Younger, the character’s creator John Straley has not been absent from the literary scene.* He’s published two other novels — The Big Both Ways and Cold Storage, Alaska — and plans for this latter book to become the first in an all-new mystery series about a fictional Southeast Alaskan town of the same name.
But why has it been so long since Cecil Younger prowled the underbelly of crime in Alaska? Straley says he thought no one liked the guy.
“I never thought to write about what would be popular. I never did. That feels like homework to me. To try to figure out what people are going to like, and to write to that. I write to what tickles me. And then try to find another crazy person in the world out there who agrees with me, and then see how it goes.”
The Cecil Younger series was launched with high hopes from Straley’s publisher, Soho Press, which later sold the rights to the series to the Bantam Books imprint of Random House. Straley says there was an assumption around his first book, The Woman Who Married a Bear, that he would weave his mysteries into the fabric of Northwest Coast Native culture — as author Tony Hillerman has done in the American Southwest.
But that was never Straley’s intention. Cecil Younger inhabited a dark, cultureless realm of addicts and thugs; he struggled with alcohol and other problems. And he was more anti-hero than hero.
Straley was lukewarm on writing a seventh novel in a series that didn’t seem all that successful. There were also some setbacks in his private life: His wife Jan, a noted biologist and authority on humpback whales, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s; Straley himself underwent several surgeries, but nevertheless lost vision in his right eye. And the world of detective fiction rolled on, Straley says, feeding market demand for characters who were also archetypes: the former cop, male or female, who is a fallen angel looking for redemption.
But has the genre finally rolled around to a complicated figure like Cecil Younger? SoHo Press thinks so. Straley’s publisher bought back the entire series from Bantam and reissued the lot under new covers to match Baby’s First Felony.
Straley says so far sales are strong, although there’s no telling whether it’s his die-hards or new fans picking up the book. Straley tells a story about going on a cruise for mystery fans with fellow Alaskan authors Dana Stabenow and Sue Henry. He was waiting in line to board the ship, and eavesdropped on the conversation of two passengers eager to meet Stabenow and Henry, but Straley, not so much.
Woman 1 — Have you read any of his (John Straley’s) books?
Woman 2 — Yeah, I kind of like his books.
Straley — (And I’m perking up at this.)
Woman 1 — Oh boo hoo! He’s so depressing! Drinking and swearing — I don’t want to meet this guy, he’s probably the most depressing, whiny person you’ve ever seen!
Straley — (Chiming in) Are you kidding, I love the guy. I’ve seen him naked! I love him!
Straley — (They stared at me, and then the light went on.)
Woman 1 — You ARE him, aren’t you?
Straley retired in 2015 from his three-decade career as an investigator for the Public Defender Agency. His plan now is to finish writing the second novel in his Cold Storage, Alaska series, and publish a second book of poetry. And then he’ll write another Cecil Younger book, and alternate writing a new installment in both series after that.
But plans change. After all, Straley moved to Sitka — literally a one-horse town — with plans to become a horseshoer. “Instead, I became an investigator,” he says.
*Note: It would be difficult to overstate how present Straley has been on the “literary scene” during the 17-year interval between novels in this series. He was named the Alaska Writer Laureate in 2006. He’s published a volume of haiku illustrated by Sitka watercolor artist Norman Campbell, and many, many essays. Find more information here.