Beyond the Twilight Saga – Five mystery/thrillers set in the Pacific Northwest
By A.J. Banner, author of The Twilight Wife (January; Touchstone)
A few years ago, Business Insider named Twilight the most famous book set in Washington state. But Stephenie Meyer is not the only author to find inspiration in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Sherman Alexie, David Guterson, Jonathan Evison, Kristin Hannah, Laurie Frankel, Jamie Ford, Garth Stein, Debbie Macomber, and many other talented writers have set their novels here—in Seattle or in quaint, nearby towns, on gorgeous offshore islands, or east of the mountains.
The Pacific Northwest also has a rich tradition of mystery and thriller writers—and what better place to set a story of murder and mayhem? In addition to winter winds and gray skies, our plethora of dreary place names adds texture to any dark story: Cape Disappointment, Useless Bay, Deadman’s Cove, Dismal Nitch, Deception Pass, and the Graveyard of the Pacific, to name a few. Among many authors of mysteries and thrillers who have set their novels in the Northwest: Bernadette Pajer, G.M. Ford, Leslie Budewitz, J.A. Jance, Aaron Elkins, Mary Daheim, and Lisa Jackson.
But exactly how do writers employ the Northwest setting to enhance their stories? In my new release, The Twilight Wife (January/Touchstone), my protagonist, Kyra Winthrop, returns with her husband to Mystic Island in the San Juan Islands, where she once loved to study marine life before a scuba-diving accident stole four years of her memory. The sense of isolation on this fictional, off-the-grid island is eerily atmospheric and becomes as integral to the story as the characters themselves. Here are five other novels in which the Pacific Northwest setting is essential to the story:
Reining in Murder by Leigh Hearon, a witty, mass-market cozy mystery, unfolds in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula. Hearon employs the variations in winter weather to reflect the main character’s changing emotions. “The door to the wood stove stood wide open, but no roar issued from within. And Annie’s heart was the coldest thing in it.” The pastoral setting, on a ranch far from the city, heightens tension in the final crisis scene as the characters we’ve grown to love are at terrible risk—and help is not near at hand.
In The Deepest Water by Kate Wilhelm, the protagonist, Abby, mourns the death of her father even as she tries to discover the key to his murder within the pages of his unpublished novel. The setting near Wilhelm’s hometown in Eugene, Oregon, provides a map of reference points for the reader, and Wilhelm animates nature to increase suspense: “The north finger was…grumbling and hissing its way over and around rocks and blowdowns on its way to the lake…”
In The Suspect, L.R. Wright situates the story in detail at the outset: “Just north of Vancouver, there is a wide blue crack in the continent called Howe Sound…” I enjoyed Wright’s precise, direct imagery, which put me right in the tiny coastal town, gazing at the view “across the Strait of Georgia to a faraway point on Vancouver Island slightly north of the city of Nanaimo.”
From Where I Watch You by Shannon Grogan, a suspenseful and poignant debut novel set in Seattle, interweaves the Northwest weather and local culture into the narrative in such a subtle but pervasive way that setting becomes the supporting fabric of the novel. “I step outside and the wind stings my face with a mixture of rain and snow…” “The whole Ave is lined with sparkly trees sprinkled with white lights, and couples holding hands…” Here and there, the setting brushes against the story, but I remain aware of the cold, wind, and rain even as I follow Kara, the protagonist, back indoors to the bakery where she lives and works with her mother on Capitol Hill.
“There is something off about Marot, Washington,” Brent Hartinger writes in Three Truths and a Lie, a riveting thriller that kept me guessing to the final, surprising twist. When four friends gather in a cabin for a weekend away, not everyone gets out alive. The damp, mossy, temperate rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula becomes a character dripping with menace. “It doesn’t sound like rain,” Hartinger writes. “It’s slower, lazier. You never know when or where the next drop’s going to fall.”