One of the more unusual yet compelling crime fiction series that I’ve read is John Straley’s Alaskan mysteries, featuring private investigator Cecil Younger. I just finished reading The Curious Eat Themselves, a novel that Straley wrote in 1993. Straley’s strong, descriptive prose reminds me at times of James Lee Burke, although his storytelling is not quite as sharp and agile as Burke’s. But like Burke, Straley has an atmospheric, almost poetic writing style. Straley writes such vivid descriptions that the reader can virtually see and smell the rustic towns and Alaskan wilderness where the stories are taking place. This is definitely not your usual gumshoe whodunit fare. Here is one paragraph from The Curious Eat Themselves that will give you an example:
If I had ever seen a fiery angel in my dreams it would have looked like this because the whale burned my eyes like flame but I was not asleep and this wasn’t a dream. Where there had been coarse sand and white crushed shell was not a twenty-ton male orca. His black-and-white hide sparkled with water sheeting down his sides. The six-foot dorsal fin draped loosely to one side and flopped slightly as the whale struggled in the sand, beating his small pectoral fins against the beach. Puffs of breath burst from his blow-hole and he flailed the sand with his flukes. Then as the next swell came, his truck-sized body lunged twice, took the injured sea lion in his jaws, and disappeared into the surf.
The Cecil Younger character is one of the more complex and fascinating ones that I’ve come across in crime fiction. He’s a hapless, bumbling investigator with all sorts of character flaws, yet fiercely intelligent and persistent. Cecil also seems to be a chick magnet of sorts. In addition to his romantic dalliances, he has an autistic roommate named Todd, one of many colorful characters that pop up in this book. In one of the later chapters in The Curious Eat Themselves, Cecil does a bit of self reflection:
I have waited for ecstasy all of my life, the pure joy of being, and I have never felt it. For each and every moment of my happiness has been tinged with sorrow. Like the swallow of water from the mountain stream that has two tastes — one living, and one dead — my life has been a sorry confluence of wonder and pity.
As you can tell from that description, Cecil is not your typical all-confident private eye. The titles of Straley’s books are also unusual and intriguing: The Woman Who Married a Bear … The Angels Will Not Care … Death and the Language of Happiness ... The Music of What Happens. The only negative aspect that I found with The Curious Eat Themselves was that the plot jumped around in a confusing manner, so much so that there times when I wondered if I had missed something. Maybe I shouldn’t mix drinking and reading. Whatever the case, this is definitely not conventional storytelling, but that’s also the beauty of these books. Straley is well worth checking out.