Friday, 15 April 2016

Making (Up) Trouble in My Hometown - Glen Erik Hamilton

Seattle isn’t one of those American cities that leaps to mind when criminals are the topic.  Say Mobster and someone might think of tommy-gun-era Chicago.  Say Mafia and it’s probably New York.  Gangbanger is L.A.  Cocaine Cowboy, Miami.  But Seattle?  Maybe the weed farms, but marijuana is legal now.  What’s a crime novelist to do?  Write about crooks trafficking coffee beans from non-free-trade nations? 
The numbers support the perception. Seattle is a pretty safe place to live.  In a 2014 FBI study, Seattle ranked forty-first for violent crime among major American cities, and sixty-third if you’re just counting murder.  If a villain in one of my stories were to cause a fatal bus crash, that act alone could triple the annual homicide rate. 
Ah, but that’s crimes against persons.  I write more about professional thieves than serial killers (or crazed bus-crashers).  What about property crime? 
Jackpot.  Seattle ranks nineteenth for burglary, ninth for motor vehicle theft, and a whopping third for larceny.  These stats are driven, as you might guess, by the drug problems that plague almost every city but seems especially malignant in Seattle’s lower-income residential neighborhoods.  Last year, the SPD and FBI kicked off a “9 ½ Block Strategy” in an effort to clean up the worst areas of downtown.  Regardless of those efforts, there’s still plenty of grit to wash down with a good microbrew. 
(On a lighter note, here’s my favourite crime statistic: BUIs, Boating Under the Influence.  A handful of arrests in the community of Wallingford, which isn’t even on the main waterway of Puget Sound.  Just a couple of drunk guys out on Lake Union, giving the whole neighbourhood a bad rep.)
I’m clearing not doing myself any favours with the local Chamber of Commerce by mentioning these statistics.   But the point is that whatever crime Seattle may have, it’s hardly the stuff of Ocean’s Eleven.   Stealing my next plot from the headlines – there’s larceny again – isn’t an option. 
No problem.  Most fiction writers are honours graduates of MSU – Making Stuff Up, to use the bowdlerised version of the term.   I could invent any number of criminal empires, on a scale that would give Professor Moriarty pause.  But what would be suitable?  What sort of crimes would reflect the city’s mossy, flannel-clad personality? 
As the real estate agents say: Location, location, location.  If you’ll pardon a few final numbers, Seattle is the third largest shipping port in North America, with the United States’ busiest system of commercial and recreational locks.  The city is a quick ninety-minute drive from the Canadian border.  Home to tech and biotech movers and shakers, and a whole lot of money, both old and new, invested in Seattle business and high society.  Where there are goods being transported, there are goods being stolen.  Wherever there’s a border, there’s smuggling.  And wherever the rich congregate, like herd animals around a watering hole, there will be predators.   
Some of those hunters, at least in my telling, are quiet professionals.  They are interested in acceptable risk for reasonable reward.  They avoid violence, less because of peaceable natures than because violence attracts attention.  By comparison, other crooks are marauders, willing to blast through any complication to get what they want.   And still others might be rabid, a danger to everyone around them.  Crime in my novels is the lynchpin for these overlapping subcultures, each with their rules and traditions and – used sparingly – even morals.   I’ve long been fascinated by how groups and communities create their own rules of engagement, while still being apart from what most would consider mainstream society. 
My protagonist Van Shaw was raised with some unusual standards.  Although he grew up around other kids and attended school like most, his family was outside normal life, was other.  A Seattle boy born and bred, he’s as much a part of the city as good espresso and drizzling rain, but his value system was on the side of the predators.  And if he should be tempted back into that world, his crimes will still be Seattle crimes.
Make no mistake, I’m delighted that the Emerald City isn’t dangerous, and that my fictional villains don’t have to work too hard to outpace reality.   I prefer my thieving and violence to remain on the page (and I hope you do as well).   And as long as Van keeps getting into trouble, I’ll aim to keep that trouble homegrown.

More information about the author can be found on his website.
Follow him on Twitter @GlenErikH
Find him on Facebook
Hard Cold Winter by Glen Erik Hamilton is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

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