A Former Cop Sets His Crime Scene In Seattle
Seattle would seem the ideal setting for noir crime novels, what with the rain, the port and the gloomy Scandinavians. But it's not as noir as it used to be. J.B. Dickey, owner of the Seattle Mystery Book Shop, says downtown Seattle was once a lot seedier. "It was more about sailors on leave and tattoo joints," he says. "And the Donut Shop!"
The Donut Shop? Tres noir, says Dickey. "People who were here during the '70s remember the Donut Shop as being a very notorious place."
A version of the Donut Shop appears in First Avenue, a novel written a decade ago by Lowen Clausen, a former Seattle police officer who once patrolled downtown. In his book, the Donut Shop is a front for a murderous criminal enterprise, but also a scene of street-level decrepitude.
An old man came through the door. He bought a cup of coffee at the counter, but his hands shook most of the coffee out of the plastic cup before he reached a table. A woman pushed a shopping cart heaped with bags and boxes. (...) Her dull eyes stared straight ahead, but at nothing. She took her two doughnuts outside and ate them beside her cart.
These days, the intersection of Pike Street and First Avenue is more touristy, and more plastic. Clausen points out the T-shirt store that now occupies the Donut Shop's old address. He recalls the old pin maps the police once used to track the crime rate in this neighborhood.
"For this area, for the month, there wasn't room for all the pins to go in," he says. Thirty years later, well-dressed tourists stroll unconcerned through the landmarked Pike Place Market, and line up outside the first Starbucks.
Clausen is a fit, easygoing guy with a gray buzz cut. He was an accidental cop, an English major who needed a job during Seattle's economic bust in the 1970s. After about a decade on the police force, he left and dedicated himself to writing a personal book about growing up; but publishers were more interested in his police experience. So he gave them three crime novels: First Avenue, then Second Watch, and finally Third & Forever.
To keep himself interested, he wrote about female police officers, because he was fascinated by the special challenges they faced. When he was a policeman, he says he was initially skeptical that women could do the job, but he quickly changed his mind.
"They didn't rely upon necessarily strength or force," he says. "They relied upon the position, their job and the sort of moral authority, and that really impressed me."
His books star officer Katherine Murphy and, later, Grace Stevens, a woman of Norwegian and African-American descent who patrols Ballard, the Scandinavian part of Seattle.
In Clausen's books, female police officers sometimes find themselves overcompensating for their perceived weakness.
Donna Burgess was Clausen's real-life squad car partner, three decades ago, and she admits she may have been an inspiration. She says his writing captures the mentality of those early female police officers: "I know I was always way more gung-ho, naive, ready to go, fight crime! And he was always trying to hold me back!"
Today, Clausen has moved on to the more personal writing projects he'd planned when he left the Seattle police 30 years ago. But he admits he sometimes misses his time as a policeman. At the Pike Place Market, as the fishmongers toss salmon for tourists' cameras, Clausen peers into the window of a tiny restaurant where a young patrolman once used to sit by himself in the predawn hours, taking notes.
"The street people, the vendors, the merchants, all kind of put together in one place. So I started writing about this because I wanted to remember it," he says. And in his books, he preserved a glimpse of Seattle's noirish past.
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