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Originally published Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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Crime fiction: Pretentious writers get their comeuppance

New in crime fiction: a couple of sendups of pretentious writers and publishers, and John Straley returns with a new Alaska-based mystery.


Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

John Straley

John Straley will read and sign “Cold Storage, Alaska” at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, (206-366-3333, thirdplacebooks.com).

He will sign books at noon Feb. 22 at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737, seattlemystery.com).

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This month’s sampling of new crime fiction is lighthearted, featuring two satires skewering pretentious writers and publishing types. Not that this reviewer would know anything about such things. Also, the writer John Straley returns with a sendup of life in a very small Alaskan town.

Martha Grimes’ gloriously quirky “The Way of All Fish” (Scribner, 352 pp., $26.99) follows “Foul Matter,” her 2004 book starring a pair of rather sweet hit men who find themselves in the cutthroat world of New York publishing.

Candy and Karl return to gallantly help an embattled novelist, Cindy Sella. She’s fending off her predatory former agent, L. Bass Hess, who’s suing to get a commission on a book he didn’t represent.

Grimes is no slouch at creating vivid characters like these, as witnessed in her Richard Jury mysteries and many other books. (She has particular fun with their names. A favorite: writer Rosa Parchment.)

Our heroes decide to go after nasty Bass not by whacking him but by driving him crazy. One part of this complex task: dipping into the illicit trade of fabulously valuable tropical fish. Don’t ask.

Meanwhile, James Magnuson’sFamous Writers I Have Known” (Norton, 320 pp., $25.95) is another gleeful look at literary affectations — specifically those found in the rarefied world of writing workshops. (The author directs the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, so he knows what he’s talking about.)

Con man Frankie Abandonato, on the run from killers, washes up in Austin, Texas and finds himself mistaken for V.S. Mohle, a famously reclusive writer slated to lead a seminar at an exclusive writing program.

Naturally, roguish Frankie rolls with the punches, using his good fortune to revel in the gig’s anonymity, cushy perks and lavish salary. He stays afloat by scouring the Internet for details of Mohle’s life and by knocking sense into pointy-headed and painfully self-absorbed students.

Frankie also tentatively befriends Rex Schoeninger, the best-selling novelist who underwrites the program. (Magnuson makes no attempt to disguise the inspirations for these characters — J.D. Salinger and James Michener.)

Rex, lonely and vulnerable, lends a sad counterpoint to the book’s satirical tone. Despite his lucrative novels, his lack of recognition as a serious artist is eating him alive. So when Frankie’s amusing scam starts to crumble — as it must — it’s Rex who breaks your heart.

Sitka, Alaska, writer John Straley isn’t prolific, but when he does publish a book it’s a gem: take “Cold Storage, Alaska” (Soho Crime, 304 pp., $26.95).

Fresh out of jail, former dope dealer Clive McCahon returns to his tiny hometown, Cold Storage, and resumes his uneasy relationship with his brother Miles, the town’s resident physician assistant.

Newly religious, Clive wants to go straight by skirting a town regulation (that the number of bars not exceed the number of churches). His brilliant idea: a combination church and bar. Meanwhile, Clive’s former associates are quite interested in finding him and a pile of money in his possession.

The crime aspect of “Cold Storage, Alaska” is pretty casual. Straley’s mostly interested in his characters and how they interact on a personal level. Among them: the McCahon boys and their mom, a band that takes up residence at Clive’s church/tavern, and an assortment of mismatched lovers. It’s always a pleasure to read Straley’s vivid studies of these folks — the slightly cracked, rugged and very funny characters of the Far North.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.



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