Piece for Killing Time Crime
Location as character: Seattle and the beautiful, ruthless wilderness of Washington State
I am an Italian who has lived in the U.K. for 28 years and I write crime fiction novels set in Seattle, Washington State. I live in South West London but most of my days start with a quick look online at The Seattle Times before I return to Homicide Detective Alice Madison as she hunts down the predators that stalk the city.
The Gift Of Darkness is the first in the series and how it all came together the way it did still surprises me, the way you’re surprised when you arrive where you wanted to go by a route you didn’t know existed.
Many years ago I was working on location in Scotland as an assistant editor on a film that was being shot in a tiny village north of Inverness. The village was really only three cottages and a pub on the bank of a loch which meant that every evening – after a frantic day getting everything ready – we would drive the rushes shot the previous day up to the set from Inverness; we would then project them on a mobile 35mm film projector that a harried technician had taught us how to use in half an hour back in London weeks earlier.
It was my first time in Scotland and I loved all of it, from the long, exhausting days to the bewildering orange cheese. And yet my favourite part was those drives in the highlands at dusk, 1.5 hours each way every night. In the darkness the beam of the headlights would sweep the twisting road and the eyes of a herd of deer would flash in the pitch black woods. Wonderful.
At the time I was playing around with an idea for a crime fiction novel: a police officer proves a criminal innocent of a terrible murder and becomes the unwilling recipient of the criminal’s gratitude. I had read a lot of Patricia Cornwell, Walter Mosley and Thomas Harris and I wanted to examine the relationship between the two characters. It was no more than a floating idea that I seemed to keep going back to without finding a way to anchor it to anything. One week in Scotland changed all that: suddenly the long drives had shown me a wilderness that just had to be part of the story – in fact it was going to be the key in the contrast between the London detective and the Scottish criminal. I didn’t have much but by the end of the film’s shoot at least I had the ember of a beginning and two intriguing locations.
Back in the London cutting room putting film trims away could be quite a mechanical affair and half of my mind was generally on the book. It was to be the story of a murder in London and the link to a 25-year-old kidnapping in Scotland. The first chapter started with a stake-out in Soho, an area I knew really well. And that was when I realized that Soho didn’t work for the story at all – in fact London itself didn’t work. In spite of knowing how the light changed on certain buildings during the day and how the air smelled in a particular road first thing in the morning, this familiarity was not translating well into the novel. Scotland, with its relentless beauty, was still perfect but I had lost my main location.
Years earlier I had gone on a family holiday to Seattle in Washington State and fallen in love with it: it’s a vibrant city on the West Coast two and a half hours south of the Canada border; it’s on the water but very close to the mountains. The highlands and the deep woods in Scotland are very similar to the landscape around Washington State, including the proximity of water, lakes and islands. If anything the wilderness near Seattle is more extreme, harsh and striking, often dangerous.
I can’t remember exactly the moment that I decided to switch the location just the feeling that since no one was waiting for this book and I was writing it entirely for myself I should take a leap of faith and follow my instinct – whatever the difficulties. All I can say is that from the first word on the page it felt absolutely right.
Seattle has informed the story and the characters; the wilderness that lies almost at the city’s edge has colored the tale as if it was pushing against those neat and ordered lives. In that wilderness anything can happen – I see shady woods and glaciers, temperate rainforests and mountain tops, isolated beaches covered in drift wood that are difficult to find in our mostly civilized European terrain. The most enduring development though is that my characters have been shaped by the proximity of that wilderness as if something a little feral has stayed with them in spite of their urban lives and polite concerns, and that is the life blood of crime fiction.