Crime & Wilderness
Long before I wrote THE GIFT OF DARKNESS, the first in the Alice Madison series, I went dogsledding in Canada: I drove a team of six huskies as they pulled a sled through a snowy forest and across a frozen lake. I was cold, exhausted and hoarse from cheering on the dogs. It was one of the best days of my life.
I also love snowshoeing – clomping about in deep snow with tennis rackets tied to my feet – and the mere mention of a winter excursion off-road in Iceland makes me giddy with delight. Can you see the pattern here?
I was born and bred in Italy (Mediterranean country, shockingly hot in the summer, cities like Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice) and I’ve lived in London since university (also a big city, also an urban wonder of the world) and yet, when it came to setting my novels I ran as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I chose Seattle, a mid-size city in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., a city that’s a stone’s throw from real wilderness, the kind that has teeth and it is not too polite to use them. They have bears there, and cougars, and wolves.
I’m not sure where this affinity comes from; I only know that it works very well for me and I couldn’t begin to think of my characters and their stories in an entirely urban environment.
You can always see the water from Seattle and you can always see the mountains. In the distance, if you look a little to the left of the metal and glass of the downtown skyscrapers you can see peaks that hold snow all year round. Why does that matter? Well, for one thing I write crime fiction and every so often it is refreshing to be able to visit a place that is not covered in CCTV cameras – the bane of any writer who wants to make things harder for her detectives – a place where you can get lost and being lost might cost you your life. And anyway true wilderness is the ultimate psychotic maniac: charming and pretty one moment, lethal the next.
My character, Alice Madison, is a homicide detective and every day she pursues the worst kind of felons but when the story takes her out of the city to the Hoh River Forest or to the isolated town of Ludlow up north near Canada, for example, the dangers become elemental and the ease of modern city life is left behind. Anything can happen out there and you don’t have immediate backup from the rest of the police department because you don’t even have a police department out there in the middle of nowhere.
Somehow writing about places where the laws of engagement of civilised society go out of the window is very fitting when you want to write about the darkness of the soul and from the beginning I wanted Madison to measure herself against more than the threat of gunmetal.
In the first three books various crises (a killing, a kidnap and a hostage rescue situation) begin in Seattle but have to be solved outside of the boundaries of the urban environment and I loved writing those chapters.
So far I have sent Madison to some of the most beautiful and dangerous areas of Washington State and no doubt I will continue to do so. Research has led me to visit some of those places in person and each has been an unforgettable experience.
I’m still not entirely sure how I came to set my books there; maybe I had not been looking for a city with some wilderness nearby but the other way round. Either way I love writing about it because what I write deals with the notions of good and evil and justice and courage, and the wilderness, in all its ruthless glory, gives the stories an extra dimension and a sense that there is something far, far bigger than us.