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A Man's Life: Legacy and My Life of Crime

by John Straley
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I was a defense investigator for a lawyer representing a young crewman who had killed his skipper and thrown the body into the Gulf of Alaska. I had a degree in English, a gregarious nature and a work history that included tree-felling, horse shoeing, and being able to throw a diamond hitch on a pack mule. I wasn't prepared for the next 20 years I would spend investigating and then fictionalizing crime stories in Alaska.

Today I have six novels on the shelf. My novels feature a private investigator named Cecil Younger. Cecil follows in the tradition of the tarnished knights created by Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammet, and James Crumley. He is a bumbler and a scarred philosopher walking through the soggy streets of southeastern Alaska. Through him, crime, alcoholism, social dysfunction have become, in a way, my vocation.

This was—and was not—what my father had wanted for me in the way of a career.

But legacy is a strange thing. What I inherited from my family both pulls and pushes on my choices to this day. People often assume the Cecil Younger books are thinly veiled autobiography. But the truth is stranger than their assumptions: Cecil came out of a lifelong collaboration with my father.

WALTER WILLIAM STRALEY WAS BORN IN 1913 in Iowa, and he moved to Manderson, WY as a young child. His father was a station agent on the Pacific Railroad and they lived above the platform. He had a brother, Larry, and a dog named Rex. As a 10-year-old he wore his hair in spit curls to look more like Rudolph Valentino. His father was caught embezzling money from the railroad, and the four of them had to move back to Iowa in poverty and disgrace, leaving Rex behind.

Walter was a handsome kid who wanted nice clothes and a hopeful life away from his sorrowful dad and a mother soured by scandal. He ran away from home when he was 15 and worked as a caddy at a golf course in Des Moines. He went to Grinnell College in Iowa, got drunk in the dorms during the end of Prohibition, and almost didn't get his degree because of it. He went to work for the local phone service in Des Moines in 1933, and he devoted his life to the company. He retired from AT&T in 1975 just before the Justice Department broke up the Bell System. I once heard my mother refer to us all—the two of them and the five children—as "a Phone Company family."

My father was a Depression-era man. Security was paramount to him, but he yearned for more. In my eyes, he always cut a stylish and complex figure. He wore a gangster's snap-brim hat and had candy in his pocket when he came home from the office. Though he was part of a conservative business culture, he was a Democrat and thought that every corporation had a larger duty to the community than its own bottom line.

Dad was brilliant at putting a good face on the business, but the profit makers largely ignored him. On the morning after he heard he wasn't going to be made the chief executive officer of the company he had given his life to, he fell into a protracted depression. He was hospitalized a short time, then fought his emotional battles on his own.

HE TOOK REFUGE IN BOOKS. He loved everything about books, the feel and the heft of them. The houses we lived in were always lined with shelves. Our favorite chairs were comfortable and well-lit. During high school,my bedroom was an alcove off the living room, surrounded by books.

If my father's career choices had made him feel trapped in later life, his imagination liberated him. He and my mother had a passion for reading. Their marriage was inhabited not only by their five children, but by Nick Caraway, Nero Wolfe, Mark Twain, and Travis McGee. They read the classics and they read the pulps; they loved The New Yorker and the homespun newspaper columnists of whatever town they were living in.

They moved more than 30 times in their life together, and their books always came with them.They also took refuge in alcohol. They were drinkers of the cocktail hour, stylish drinkers—think of a thin Nick and Nora Charles, with glittering eyes, and fascinating friends from all walks of life. When my parents drank to excess, they aspired to be urbane. In this they were people of their generation, Midwesterners who had escaped the rural churches and expectations of their parents, who had brought a disastrous Prohibition on the country. Alcohol was always a part of my life, but I've never felt particularly victimized by it. There was always a certain amount of alcohol-fused chaos in our household—parties and practical jokes, stylish women stumbling home late at night, men doing push-ups in our dining room, and political arguments that ended in shouting—but there was no violence,and everyone was serious about driving safely. When I was 10 years old, my chores included feeding the pets, building a fire in the fireplace before Dad got home, and making his first martini.

SOME OF MY SIBLINGS MIGHT DISAGREE, but alcohol was never the problem in our house. Depression was the problem, and a certain kind of emotional dishonesty, which certainly wasn't helped by the drinking. The real problem was my father wanted to lead an expressive life but somehow couldn't. His heroes were writers and artists, and although he could express his opinions clearly, he had a hard time even acknowledging his emotional life. My father achieved a lot—important charitable works and a few corporate innovations—but he remained emotionally stymied right up to the end of his life. Once, when I was about 10 years old, a friend of the family committed suicide, and I asked my father what would cause a person to take their own life. He told me someone might be so moved because they had not done something they had always wanted to do. "What could be that important?" I asked him, and he said, "Oh ... I don't know ... not finishing the novel you started. That might do it."

Under these circumstances, at 12 years old, I decided to become a writer. It was a perfect adolescent choice, really—it was both a rejection and an acceptance of my father's values. I rejected his steadfast need for security and financial success, while at the same time I could emulate his heroes who stood behind the books on the shelves.

There were a couple of big problems with my wanting to be a writer. First, I was dyslexic, a slow reader, and my handwritten words often came out backwards or upside down. My parents hired tutors to cure me of this, but after several years of failure, my last tutor gave me a dictionary and simply said, "Just take your time and keep this with you."

The other problem: I wasn't particularly good at it. How could I be "a writer" if my first drafts were so bad? All of this was made worse by the fact that I was an avid reader and had been raised by readers, so I recognized that my writing was bad. I fussed and struggled and avoided writing for years. As a young man, I spent most of my life locked down in a stupefied kind of writer's block.

Instead of writing, I wandered. I worked on the eastern slope of Washington's Cascade Range. I went to school awhile, then quit, and went back. I carried notebooks in my saddlebags, occasionally scribbling descriptions in my cockeyed handwriting. I learned to shoe horses and throw hitches. I tried to outrun my inability to write by having adventures which might be worthy of being written about someday. I wore broad-brimmed hats. I drove and hitchhiked the cold, high plains. I wrote poetry no one ever read. I wrote letters to friends, and each time I started a novel I quickly retreated, knowing in my bones that I would never be able to pay the price that real writers must have to pay.

I was working in Alaska building trails when a friend offered me a job tracking down drunks in bars. He was a young lawyer who liked to talk about storytelling. I had the qualifications he was looking for: I could talk to drunks and criminals and report back what I saw. I was sick of trying to be a writer anyway, so I gave myself over to a life of crime. I stopped writing completely, and I started drinking. If I couldn't be a writer, I'd become a character in a book.

This wasn't a bad time in my life. I traveled widely and met people who would amaze me: loggers who loved the woods they were destroying, transvestites lost in the Alaskan bar scene, murderers and pimps, drug dealers, and pathetic fools like myself, stuck in the middle of a chaotic life, looking for the possibility of redemption. The best thing I did during this period of my life was shed the weight of wanting to be a writer. I started feeling better. I felt more awake. I started paying attention.

There were life rings tossed to me along the way. I took a poetry class with Bill Stafford, and I corresponded with him over the years. I took a short-story course with James Welch, and one day James Crumley sat in on the class. Welch and Crumley savaged my story, and rather than giving up in defeat, I worked harder on polishing it up. Bill Stafford would mostly nod and say, "Uh, huh...tell me more about that," knowing that we are almost always our toughest critics. Nelson Bentley ran a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, where he posted his rules for young poets. The first rule was "Support Onomatopoeia," and his second was "Avoid Self Pity Like the Plague." The clarity of his teaching still cuts through the years with the tintinnabulation of a distant church bell.

Fortunately for me, I married a brutally honest woman and started writing seriously after we had our son. father and mother passed away and, eventually I stopped getting drunk. I stopped getting drunk not because some great insight. I stopped getting drunk because nothing good ever came from my drunkenness.

As for success in writing, I put all expectations out mind. I didn't care if my first draft was crap or not,learned that in revision was the possibility of redemption. I forgot about my writer's block by embracing my failure up to that point.When I had fully embraced my failure, I gave birth to the hapless Cecil Younger, the tarnished hero. Cecil and I are different in many ways but we something important, something I live now as a gift father: Cecil and I both want to live expressive lives.

I've stopped taking on criminal cases now.They take too far from home. Being a real private eye was never exciting as it was in my stories. Today I live my life of through a mixture of memory and imagination. I still mysteries, but I work in a machine shop part time, publish a few poems here and there. I've learned to king salmon. I cook our family dinners, and I chauffeur our teenage son around town, all of which I consider part of my life's work, my vocation.

In this and many other small ways, I try to honor father, following in the footsteps he never took.


John Straley's first book, The Woman Who Married a Bear, was published in 1993 and won the Shamus Award for the Best First Mystery of that year. His third book, The Music of What Happens, won the 1997 Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery.

Straley works from a small office alongside the waterfront home near Old Sitka Rocks where he and his wife, Jan—a marine biologist well-known for her extensive studies of humpback whales—raised their son, Finn.

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