Ed McBain made only one real mistake with his 87th Precinct series, but it was a mistake hardwired into the core of the books, one that tainted every one of the dozens of novels that followed. Rather than setting his fictional police precinct in a real city, all the action takes place in The City, an unnamed metropolis that many people assume is a direct analog for New York but which actually contains elements of Chicago, Boston, and even St. Louis.
Some people would claim that this geographic detachment frees McBain's stories from becoming dated, and makes them more lasting works of fiction. These people are wrong. There's nothing more lasting than rooting a story in a specific time and place. Imagine Dickens without soot-crusted London streets, or Dostoevsky without hopeless, frozen Russia: It's impossible.
Murdoch Hughes understands this, and he's chosen the perfect setting for his newest mystery, The Seattle Barista Killer. Seattle, still in its post–tech boom hangover and on the cusp of a housing depression, is an ideal backdrop for a noirish mystery. This book meanders through specific locations (Everett, First Avenue in Pioneer Square, the view down Denny Way "with the Space Needle pointing up through the mist to hidden stars above, like some giant compass needle showing the way to infinity") so clearly that an overachieving reader could take a map of Seattle and draw out the action as it takes place.
Armed with this specific sense of place, Hughes creates a private investigator that embodies The Seattle Man in 2008. His name is Harley Wolf—as improbable a name as Spillane's Mike Hammer or Hammett's Sam Spade—and, much like Seattle, he is composed of contradictions. Wolf is a Harley-Davidson-motorcycle-driving man with a lust for, well, lust. He's a man who knows how to fight for justice with his bare knuckles. And he's a werewolf.
At the same time, Wolf is an avowed vegan who thoughtfully prepares eggs for his lover after a long night of passionate lovemaking. He's a bit of a triple-espresso-quaffing coffee snob whose heightened sense of smell can barely stand corporate-chain coffee. And he feels like an outsider compared to the rest of the highly uncouth local werewolf pack. He's a pacifist, or at least he tries to be.
But when a serial killer known as The Barista Basher starts mauling female coffee clerks—"These baristas are like princesses around here," explains an SPD officer at the scene of the third attack—Wolf, brought on the case as an outside consultant, takes it personally, and he vows to track down the killer and bring him to justice.
Killer is clearly intended as the first book in a series, and the colorful supporting cast is introduced as Wolf's hunt grows frenetic. The most colorful of the lot is an ancient cowboy named Greg who lives in the U-District and buys his Stetsons off eBay: "Why auctions are probly old as the human race, and the fact it's on some new gadget that looks a lot like a typewriter hooked up to a telyvision shouldn't stop no one."
The most important character, though, is Seattle, and we learn about its history as Wolf prowls the streets: "The streets I walked had begun as a settlement for logging the nearby hills, with the huge trees cut down, stripped, and skidded down the muddy slopes to the salty waterway, where they were shipped south to supply the rapidly growing population of California."
As Killer moves along, too, the language becomes more exciting. This is clearly an author having a tremendous amount of fun: "'Ohhh,' she moaned, moving slowly, like melting chocolate dancing a tango. Metaphors mixed and flowed through us, one to another until language couldn't keep up, our words slipping into the sweet primordial liquid of our origins."
As the case explodes into a Spillane-style climax that includes violence, S&M, a hostage in peril, giant dildos, and jealousy, it becomes obvious that Killer is about more than just solving a crime. It's about the weird state of modern semimonogamous sexual relationships, boundless corporate greed, the changing idea of masculinity in polite society, and the importance of good coffee. It's about everything that makes Seattle what it is today.