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A Former Cop Sets His Crime Scene In Seattle

Aug 4, 2011
Originally published on August 10, 2011 10:17 am

Seattle would seem the ideal setting for noir crime novels, what with the rain, the port and the gloomy Scandinavians. But it's not as noir as it used to be. J.B. Dickey, owner of the Seattle Mystery Book Shop, says downtown Seattle was once a lot seedier. "It was more about sailors on leave and tattoo joints," he says. "And the Donut Shop!"

The Donut Shop? Tres noir, says Dickey. "People who were here during the '70s remember the Donut Shop as being a very notorious place."

A version of the Donut Shop appears in First Avenue, a novel written a decade ago by Lowen Clausen, a former Seattle police officer who once patrolled downtown. In his book, the Donut Shop is a front for a murderous criminal enterprise, but also a scene of street-level decrepitude.

An old man came through the door. He bought a cup of coffee at the counter, but his hands shook most of the coffee out of the plastic cup before he reached a table. A woman pushed a shopping cart heaped with bags and boxes. (...) Her dull eyes stared straight ahead, but at nothing. She took her two doughnuts outside and ate them beside her cart.

These days, the intersection of Pike Street and First Avenue is more touristy, and more plastic. Clausen points out the T-shirt store that now occupies the Donut Shop's old address. He recalls the old pin maps the police once used to track the crime rate in this neighborhood.

"For this area, for the month, there wasn't room for all the pins to go in," he says. Thirty years later, well-dressed tourists stroll unconcerned through the landmarked Pike Place Market, and line up outside the first Starbucks.

Clausen is a fit, easygoing guy with a gray buzz cut. He was an accidental cop, an English major who needed a job during Seattle's economic bust in the 1970s. After about a decade on the police force, he left and dedicated himself to writing a personal book about growing up; but publishers were more interested in his police experience. So he gave them three crime novels: First Avenue, then Second Watch, and finally Third & Forever.

To keep himself interested, he wrote about female police officers, because he was fascinated by the special challenges they faced. When he was a policeman, he says he was initially skeptical that women could do the job, but he quickly changed his mind.

"They didn't rely upon necessarily strength or force," he says. "They relied upon the position, their job and the sort of moral authority, and that really impressed me."

His books star officer Katherine Murphy and, later, Grace Stevens, a woman of Norwegian and African-American descent who patrols Ballard, the Scandinavian part of Seattle.

In Clausen's books, female police officers sometimes find themselves overcompensating for their perceived weakness.

Donna Burgess was Clausen's real-life squad car partner, three decades ago, and she admits she may have been an inspiration. She says his writing captures the mentality of those early female police officers: "I know I was always way more gung-ho, naive, ready to go, fight crime! And he was always trying to hold me back!"

Today, Clausen has moved on to the more personal writing projects he'd planned when he left the Seattle police 30 years ago. But he admits he sometimes misses his time as a policeman. At the Pike Place Market, as the fishmongers toss salmon for tourists' cameras, Clausen peers into the window of a tiny restaurant where a young patrolman once used to sit by himself in the predawn hours, taking notes.

"The street people, the vendors, the merchants, all kind of put together in one place. So I started writing about this because I wanted to remember it," he says. And in his books, he preserved a glimpse of Seattle's noirish past.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This morning, NPR's Martin Kaste introduces us to an author who knows well what was once one of the tougher neighborhoods of Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE: The rain, the seaport, the gloomy Scandinavians: Seattle would seem the ideal setting for crime novels. But if it's noir you're after, you should start your search at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop.

DICKEY: Considering the number of serial killers in the great Northwest, I don't know if there is a specific noir part of Seattle. But this would be a good one.

KASTE: J.B. Dickey is talking about Seattle's downtown. His bookstore is just a few steps from the waterfront and the original Skid Road. The thing is - although there are still plenty of guys drinking out of paper bags here - downtown Seattle just isn't as noir as it used to be. To get a sense of what it once was, Dickey recommends "First Avenue," a thriller by writer Lowen Clausen.

DICKEY: It goes back to the days when it was a seedier strip, when it was more about sailors on leave and tattoo joints and strip joints and the donut shop.

KASTE: The Donut Shop. That doesn't sound seedy until you read the book.

MONTAGNE: (Reading) An old man came through the door. He bought a cup of coffee at the counter, but his hands shook most of the coffee out of the plastic cup before he reached a table. A woman pushed a shopping cart heaped with bags and boxes. Her dull eyes stared straight ahead, but at nothing. She took her two doughnuts outside and ate them beside her cart.

KASTE: In the book "First Avenue," the Donut Shop is a front for a criminal enterprise run by a creepy foreigner. In real life, well, that's pretty much what it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

LOWEN CLAUSEN: It's right there. It's now a T-shirt company.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KASTE: Here's the author, Lowen Clausen. Thirty years ago, he was a policeman in downtown Seattle, and he had first-hand knowledge of the Donut Shop.

CLAUSEN: The owner of the donut shop, his name was Gunther. He had these kids all working for him, and they would steal and burglarize in the area, and then he would fence the stuff out of it. And sometimes he'd participate in the burglaries, too.

KASTE: Unidentified Group: (unintelligible)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KASTE: But in the late '70s, Clausen says, things here were a bit dice-ier.

CLAUSEN: They may not have the pin-maps of crimes anymore. I don't know. That's probably all computerized. But we used to have the pin maps on the wall. And in this area, for the month, there wasn't room, you know, for all the pins to go in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KASTE: Clausen takes a seat in the Athenian. It's one of those diners in the Market where you're paying for the view, not the food. A bank of fog is rolling in across the Sound - a touch of atmosphere for an otherwise blandly beautiful summer day. It wasn't far from here, he says, where, as a young cop, he started writing his book.

CLAUSEN: I found this when I started working the 4 AM shift. There would always be a quiet hour or so before things really happened. And I would - I had a friend that had a little restaurant here, just a few doors away from this, ran the restaurant by himself, just a little corner space.

KASTE: To keep himself interested, he wrote about women police officers: Katherine Murphy, and later, Grace Stevens.

CLAUSEN: Toward the end of my time on the police department was the first time that women officers were hired to work the streets. And much against my will, I was assigned to work with a new woman officer.

KASTE: Against his will, he says, because he doubted women had the physical presence for the job. But he changed his mind.

CLAUSEN: They didn't rely upon necessarily upon strength or force. They relied upon the position, their job, and the sort of moral authority. And that really impressed me.

KASTE: Unidentified Woman: (Reading) She remembered how she felt as she had told him to drop the knife: hate. Was it really hate? She remembered the look on his face, the sound of the knife as it hit the floor, her lack of relief that he had complied.

DONNA BURGESS: I felt like he portrayed those female officers very well.

KASTE: Donna Burgess was Clausen's squad car partner. She now lives on Whidbey Island, near Seattle, and is still Clausen's friend. She says his books capture the early female cops' urge to prove themselves.

BURGESS: I know I was way more gung-ho, naive, ready to go fight crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BURGESS: And he was always trying to hold me back

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KASTE: But on his way out of Pike Place Market, he pauses outside a darkened Chinese restaurant.

CLAUSEN: So this is the restaurant right here. And this was called Alex's Restaurant.

KASTE: He peers through the window to find the spot where the young beat cop used to sit and take notes about the local characters.

CLAUSEN: The street people, the vendors, the merchants, all kind of put together in one place. And so I started writing about this, because I wanted to remember it.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.