This week’s blog is by Tom Llewellyn, whose teen noir book, The Shadow of Seth, was published last month by the Poisoned Pencil. Tom writes about the importance of setting in a mystery, and why he chose Tacoma. “A well-written teen mystery with a likeable protagonist, The Shadow of Seth is book that even adult fans of noir will enjoy.” –New York Journal of Books
My latest novel, The Shadow of Seth, is a young adult murder mystery. It’s set in Tacoma for three reasons:
- The city should be a character.
- I like to write what I know.
- Tacoma has no murder credibility gap.
City as Character
I totally buy into the hardboiled crime novel idea that the setting is practically a character in the book. Chandler made Los Angeles key to Philip Marlowe. Elmore Leonard had Detroit. So why can’t Seth and I have Tacoma?
Write What You Know
I know Tacoma. I live here. I’m a little obsessed with the place. So it makes it easy to describe the scenes. If I make Seth visit a coffee shop in my book, I can drive to Metro Coffee on the University of Washington Tacoma campus and take notes on the actual smells, the actual lighting, and the actual sounds that Seth would experience. Real details = fewer clichés.
Here are the real local places Seth visits in the book:
- Southern Kitchen (aka Shotgun Shack)
- Frisko Freeze
- King’s Books
- MSM Deli
- Stadium High School (aka Heath High School)
- Pho Bac
- Ruston Way
- The grain silo
- Metro Coffee (aka Guinevere’s)
- The brewery district
- The Wedge neighborhood
- Trinity Presbyterian Church
- The North End
- And Seth’s neighborhood, The Hilltop
No Murder Credibility Gap
Tacoma is a lovely, soulful spot nestled between the shores of the Puget Sound and the foothills of Mount Rainier and people get murdered here.
You believe this, right? Because if you’ve seen Tacoma on national news, crime is probably why. Us loving locals may try to deny it, but it’s true. The city is my home and I’d never live anywhere else. But Tacoma has had more than its fair share of violent criminal deaths. Famed serial killer, Ted Bundy, grew up here. The DC Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, murdered his first victim in Tacoma. Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, now undergoing gentrification, struggled with serious gang issues in the 1980s, earning the nickname, “Tacompton.”
I know the Hilltop neighborhood well. My wife and I lived on South Seventh and Ainsworth for four years. My second kid was born there. The Hilltop’s—and Tacoma’s—tough reputation ain’t all bad. It makes for a good book setting. It keeps the annoying tourists away. And us tougher Tacomans have a saying: Keep Tacoma Feared.
So, you city planners, please keep this in mind as you continue your gentrification efforts. A few murders here and there add a little spice to life. We don’t all want higher property values. And if Tacoma gets too warm and fuzzy, where am I going to set my books?