John Straley’s The Big Both Ways ( Alaska Northwest Books, 2008) is a 30’s era crime story and a field guide to wildlife of the Pacific Northwest. It meanders somewhat, but never strays off course and makes a fine entertainment for those with a little patience.
The story begins when logger Slip Wilson walks off the job after seeing one of his coworkers die in a gruesome accident. He has two grand in a tin and he’s planning on going back east and settling down. Unfortunately for him, he happens upon Ellie Hobbes, a pretty blonde communist with a union organizer’s corpse in the trunk of her car. One death leads to another, and soon Slip, Ellie, and Ellie’s young niece Annabelle are forced to flee Seattle in a dory while they are pursued by private security thugs, union members and the police.
Shamus winner Straley takes his time and draws his characters and his setting in loving detail. He shines depicting the runaways encounters with the wild creatures in the sea as much as he does depicting the social upheaval of the Depression. He has clearly done his research , and The Big Both Ways is part hard boiled crime story, part road novel and part naturalist work in the vein of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. At times it feels as if Straley is trying to cram too much into the story, but, to his credit, it never loses focus. Still, trying to get to the end may, at times, feel like its taking longer than the characters’ trip to Alaska, but Straley’s novel is an ambitious one, and he can be forgiven for having artistic ambitions a little bit to big to fit comfortably between two covers.
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