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Art Beat: Mystery writer John Straley switches gears to humor in new book

Mike Dunham
Ron Coddington color caricature of 19th century author and humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

Former Alaska State Writer Laureate John Straley, a real life criminal investigator, is best known for his detective novels. (He has a flair for poetry, too.) His latest book, however, takes a different turn. "Cold Storage, Alaska" is the sequel to "The Big Both Ways," a historical whodunnit with requisite murder and bad guys. But the new book is definitely not in the mystery genre. If anything, it has the tone of an ensemble comedy. I was reminded of a marriage of "Northern Exposure" with "Waking Ned Devine."

In an afterword to the book, Straley says, "I have long recognized that I am an oddball in the crime writing world in that I do not recognize revenge as the lifeblood of a great plot. Instead, after almost 30 years as a criminal investigator as well as a writer, I still believe that love and compassion are what move through the hearts of all characters."

Published by Soho Crime, the book features plenty of criminals, maybe even more than usual in an isolated Southeast Alaska hamlet. They sometimes do bad things, but most redeem themselves one way or another and -- spoiler alert -- the only deaths in the book are by natural causes. A mirthful mood of good humor, even comedy, runs through the plot.

In one of the book's most amusing exchanges, a recovering gangster with Hollywood aspirations argues with a Tlingit carver about movies and, by extension, storytelling. "Movies are really about one thing happening to one person," he says. "That's it."

"Cold Storage," however, follows a different literary principle. It's about several people in a tiny town (bits of Pelican, Tenakee, Baranof, et al.) each undergoing their own change in life or perspective, the individual stories weaving together into something like a consolidated story arc. The main personae are two brothers, upright military hero and town medic Miles and ex-con Clive. Crossing their paths are a host of peculiar residents, including the above-named gangster and the carver, a pair of frustrated married schoolteachers, a wannabe Buddhist paddling to Seattle to meet the Dalai Lama, the entire band of a cruise ship and perhaps the world's ugliest dog.

By the way, animals speak in the book. They're not particularly chatty, but they do say words and even whole sentences.

Straley tells us the book is intended to be part of a series that started with "The Big Both Ways." The publication date is Feb. 4. The author is scheduled to read from it and talk about his work at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, at the Great Harvest Bread Company, 570 E. Benson Blvd., courtesy of 49 Writers.

Short plays sought

The Fairbanks Drama Association and Looking Glass Group Theatre invite Alaska residents to send their best 10-minute plays to be considered for the 13th Annual 8 X 10 Festival of New Alaskan Plays.

Eight selected plays, none lasting more than 10 minutes, will be given rehearsed staged readings at the Festival April 25-26 at the Hap Ryder Riverfront Theater in Fairbanks. Only one entry per person will be accepted, and all entrants must be Alaskans. No musicals or children's plays will be considered, and casts should have no more than eight actors. The deadline for submissions is March 15 and electronic submissions are not accepted. Authors should send five copies of their script to: Fairbanks Drama Association/ Looking Glass Group Theatre; 1852 Second Avenue; Fairbanks 99701.

There are other rules to follow. Contact Peggy MacDonald Ferguson at or call 907-456-7529.

Screenwriting camp

The Alaska New Media Career Training Center has invited film and television writer Chris Keane to town for a Story Development and Screenwriter Workshop. The four-day "Weekend Bootcamp" will take place Jan. 30-Feb. 2. A tuition of $695 is being charged and enrollment is limited to 18 people.

Participants should bring a resume, a one-page synopsis of their idea for a story and a laptop. A two-month "mentorship" on story development is also offered. The cost for that is $1,500. Alaska residents may be eligible for reimbursement through the State of Alaska's Individual Training Accounts program, set up to help prepare Alaskans for work in the field of cinema or television. For more information, contact David Lyman at

Say it ain't so, Sam

A New York Times article by Tom Rachman about the Oxford English Dictionary in the digital age caught my attention last week -- mainly for the entertaining sidebar reprinted here.

"Historical quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary show that many infamous terms of today are older than expected," Rachman noted, supplying the following examples with dates and language taken directly from the OED.

OMG: The first recorded appearance of this breathless acronym for "Oh, my God!" comes, surprisingly, in a letter to Winston Churchill.

1917 J.A.F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78. "I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis -- O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) -- Shower it on the Admiralty!!"

LITERALLY: Word curmudgeons wince when "literally" is used figuratively. Examples of this inversion go back to 1769. Even Mark Twain did it.

1876 'M. Twain' "Adventures Tom Sawyer" ii. 20. "And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth."

LIKE: Plopped into sentences, "like" is a rest stop for the hesitant, and not just tweens.

1778 F. Burney "Evelina" II. xxiii. 222. "Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship's taking offence."

UNFRIEND: Facebook was born in 2004. Unfriending began a tad earlier.

1659 T. Fuller Let. P. Heylyn in Appeal Injured Innoc. iii. "I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us."

WHATEVER: The earliest record of this fashionable retort may not go back centuries. Still, 41 years is older than many of its expert practitioners.

1973 To our Returned Prisoners of War (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10. "Whatever, equivalent to 'that's what I meant.' Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning."

Three observations:

• "On the tapis" sounds similar to and means much the same thing as "on tap," but the phrases are unrelated. "Tapis" refers to the cloth covering tables on which petitions and similar formal documents were placed for consideration.

• Given the punctuation conventions of the time, one can argue that Fanny Burney didn't plop in "like" as an indicator of hesitance but may have intended, "Father grew quite uneasy-like."

• Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain, should be ashamed of himself -- but, whatever.

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