Private detective Peter Bragg is driving from Bellingham to Seattle. He’s working on a particularly tricky case — an old friend, an affable writer of boring technical articles, has had his life threatened for mysterious reasons — and at every turn Bragg’s past confronts him. He’s far away from his home in San Francisco, his ex-wife is putting the moves on him, and his own childhood keeps creeping into his peripheral vision. Bragg grew up in Phinney Ridge, right near the zoo, and he can’t stop thinking about what it means to be a Seattleite.
Here he is remembering how to live with Seattle’s weather:
It rained continually during my drive back to Seattle and it didn’t stop when I reached there. But I told myself you couldn’t think about it like you were somebody from California, where it probably wasn’t raining. You had to think of it like somebody from eastern Colorado. Instead of thinking that it probably wasn’t raining in California, you had to think that it probably was snowing in eastern Colorado — or soon would be, as soon as this storm out of the Gulf of Alaska moved inland. If you didn’t want your mind to cramp up, you had to pretend you were from eastern Colorado.
This is a contradiction that defines the city: someone who ran away from Seattle is driving toward Seattle and dealing with the reality of Seattle by denying his Seattle-ness. Only a Seattle native would think readjusting to life in Seattle by adopting the mindset of someone from somewhere else would be a good idea. Those layers of displacement are intrinsic to the identity of the city, something Bragg understands at his very core.
Jack Lynch’s 1985 novel Seattle (subtitle: A Bragg Novel) is the fourth in a series of location-based mysteries starring Bragg; the other three novels are Sausalito, San Quentin, and Monterey. All the typical hard-boiled detective tropes are lovingly tucked into the pages of the book: Bragg is a tough-talking former reporter with an overdeveloped sense of justice and an underdeveloped grasp on adult responsibility. He’s plagued by a femme fatale (his aforementioned ex-wife), he gets the snot beaten out of him by the bad guys at least once in the course of the novel, and his narration is prone to jarring moments of poetry.
"Maybe with my scrambled frame of mind, I shouldn’t be packing that much gun. Seattle could be the death of you."
But Seattle also has the stiff cadence of a travelogue, as though Lynch tried to scrape some local flavor onto the pages by consulting a map of the city. (This isn’t the case—Lynch, like Bragg, was born and raised in Seattle, only moving to San Francisco as an adult—but it sure feels like it.) Here’s a sentence that doesn’t ever need to exist in a novel: “The west gate parking lot at Woodlawn Park was a long paved area between Phinney Avenue and the perimeter fence of the park and the zoo itself.” Or here, where a punch-drunk Bragg gains consciousness and tries to orient himself against what he can see of the city skyline:
The viaduct looked like the elevated roadway that runs between an area just south of downtown Seattle out to Alki Point and West Seattle. Probably, I was near Harbor Island, at the south end of Elliott Bay.
It’s awkward as hell, but it’s also kind of an interesting gimmick. On reading Seattle, you may imagine a whole series of travel guides loosely disguised as thrillers, where a detective chases a suspect around streets packed with restaurants, with the detective dropping little pithy reviews in his narration as he runs past each place, before they finally duck into the Space Needle gift shop for a final firefight, whereupon the gunman collapses into shelves stuffed with tchotchke and t-shirts, the prices tucked discreetly into little parentheses after their mention, and breathes his last. For people who learn better through storytelling, guides like that could be a useful, if awkward, way to learn about a city.
Seattle is a difficult book to read, in part because it’s aggressively of its time. This conversation between a bigot and Bragg about a photograph of San Francisco’s “Gay Freedom Day,” the early version of Pride weekend, might have seemed forward-thinking in 1985 but now it smacks of pure gay panic:
“...there musta been thousands of ‘em, bare-chested and smooching all over the goddamned place. Jesus Christ, was enough to make a man puke. You’re not one of ‘em, are you? You don’t look like it.”
“No sir. I’ve preferred girls my whole life. And the photo you saw probably was a little misleading. That annual celebration they have with a parade and all attracts people from all over the West. If it was like that there all the time, I’d probably move.”
And Seattle occasionally reads like Lynch is writing it for the sole purpose of amusing himself, as when Bragg hangs out with his friend’s elementary-school-age kids, and for some reason the boys all talk like they were plucked from a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster flick:
“Jellyroll Hansen said he was going to beat the stuffing out of Al after school.”
“You think they were trying to put the snatch on us, Pete?”
and, about Bragg's car:
“Can’t you rev up this old bucket anymore?”
It’s a confusing choice, and it doesn’t really enhance the reading experience. These parts of Seattle doesn’t read like Lynch is out to parody expectations, or insert Pynchonian riffs into the traditional thriller framework; instead, it reads like Lynch is telling in-jokes to himself. And the central mystery, the whole point of the book, fizzles out without much incident. But that’s okay, because Seattle isn’t about its mystery. Seattle is about — and this might sound obvious but bear with me — Seattle. Or maybe a more appropriate way to put it would be that Seattle is about the Seattle state of mind.
As mentioned before, Bragg spends much of the book wrestling with his past, and trying to deal with the difference between the Seattle in his mind and the Seattle all around him. He doesn’t hate the city and he never made a melodramatic vow to never return, but he’s certainly got some issues with it. Here he is mulling about what's changed and what's stayed the same:
The buildings that didn’t belong there, the freeway that screwed up driving the streets I used to drive, and the weather you could never depend on….I finally left the .45 in the suitcase. Maybe with my scrambled frame of mind, I shouldn’t be packing that much gun. Seattle could be the death of you.
This is a frame of thought that nearly any modern Seattleite can appreciate. “The buildings that didn’t belong there” could just as easily be referring to any number of nightmarishly ugly condos that sprouted up around town over the better part of the last decade. And while Bragg complains about the existence of the freeway, many Seattleites now complain about traveling on the freeway — specifically, the amount of traffic, which also stands in as a shorthand for the newcomers to Seattle, the people who are taking up what used to be precious empty space.
If you’re not a native Seattleite, your ideal Seattle is always the one that existed a year after your arrival. From that point on, it’s always in decline. If you move away from Seattle, your ideal Seattle is always the Seattle you left behind. For a city marching so relentlessly into the future, it’s weirdly preoccupied with its own recent past, and its own authenticity. Most of America doesn’t worry about “selling out” anymore — a musician who sells a track to an advertiser for a commercial isn’t considered a sellout, she’s just making the most of a rough media environment — but Seattle worries endlessly about whether Seattle is selling out, or we try to pinpoint the exact moment when Seattle sold out. Seattle proves that this is not a new preoccupation, and Bragg serves as an excellent proxy for our modern urban anxiety, our obsession with a city’s soul.
While the plot of Seattle doesn’t go anywhere important or memorable, the book does pay off thematically. Bragg’s aggression against Seattle escalates throughout the novel. At first, he’s a little annoyed that the city isn’t exactly as he left it. Then he agitates against the construction that’s happened since he left. He starts gravitating to seedy hotels on Aurora on the north side of the city, close to where he grew up. Then the rain triggers a kind of existential despair in him. And finally he’s outright haunted by the Seattle he can never return to. At one point, he opens his mouth and pours out all this acrid bile in a single passage that doesn’t quite resemble any of the writing that comes before or after:
She listened hard as I spooned it out, the daydreams along with the fistfights. Streetcars that used to rumble along Phinney Avenue, just a couple of blocks from where I grew up. The fire engines that would scream down the same avenue in the middle of the night, setting off a great wail and yelp from animals penned up at the zoo. Forest fires that could be seen across Puget Sound in the Olympic Mountains. The wintry displays of the northern lights, or aurora borealis, as we were taught to call them later. Pollywog ponds and hurt dogs and remembered deaths.
This is the real mystery: who killed Bragg’s Seattle? Who left this impostor in its place? Can the detective ever solve the mystery of his own past? Or will time — the ultimate culprit in any mystery novel — wipe out Bragg before he can make peace with the case of the missing city?
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant