By Cliff Meyer
It's a sunny day in Seattle's Chinatown International District but as Seattle Police Capt. Neil Low (IAS '03) strides down the gradually gentrifying streets, he sees a grimy past of crime and corruption.
"I spent a lot of my career down here," says Low, who joined the force as a cadet in 1968. As Low passes historic buildings, the memories flow. He stops and points to a window where in 1983 he guarded the sole surviving witness to Seattle's Wah Mee Massacre, in which 14 people were gunned down at a gambling club. A few steps farther: Smugglers hid illegal immigrants in a secret area of a downscale hotel. Across the street: Prostitution rings operated in a now spruced-up park. "I made a lot of arrests there," he says, laughing.
The juicy details might have remained within Low, 59, if not for many hours spent at UW Bothell in the campus library writing his new novel, Thick as Thieves (Tigress Publishing, 2008). The noir mystery, set in 1940s Seattle, focuses on a young man who "discovers unsettling things about his inner self, as he sets out on a course of revenge against the killers of his detective father." Says Low, "I was trying to capture the innocence we had before the freeways."
The novel is not autobiographical, says Low, a decorated Vietnam veteran who grew up in Seattle and now lives in Everett with his wife and three teenage daughters. However, about 80 percent of the anecdotes are based on experiences during a career that includes stretches as commander of several Seattle Police Department units, including internal investigations, homicide and violent crimes, and domestic violence and sexual assault. "I read [officer turned-novelist] Joe Wambaugh and I made up my mind that this is what I want to do," he says. "When I worked street vice, I kept my own notes on all of my arrests." Low also saw, from the inside, how the SPD changed after being rocked by scandals starting in the late 1960s, and police corruption is front and center in his novel.
Notes Seattle Police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske, Thick as Thieves is "an inside look at the dark side of law enforcement from a bygone time." Low also received praise from best-selling true-crime writer (and former Seattle police officer) Ann Rule, who says "this is a great book, alive with action....Reading it is akin to stepping into a film noir, shadowy, smoky, and shocking."
Having finished the walk in the settings for much of the action in both Thick as Thieves and another novel he hopes to publish, Low invites an observer to sit down to a dim sum lunch accented with "beatman's brew," a mix (soy and hot sauces, plus mustard) taught to him by officers on the Chinatown beat. He admits he aced the course in crime-report writing 37 years ago at the Seattle Policy Academy, but that had little to do with literary quality. "We wrote reports in the passive voice because you can't say who did what as a matter of police procedure," he notes.
Low, who earned an AA at Shoreline Community College in 1977, says he decided two decades later to earn his bachelor's at UW Bothell primarily because the degree had become increasingly important for career advancement.
His tenacity was immediately apparent to his teachers, such as senior seminar project adviser, IAS Associate Professor Michael Goldberg. "What impressed me the most about Neil as a student - besides his remarkable ability to balance school, work and family - was his commitment to investigating difficult subjects in a balanced, complex way," Goldberg says. Low's project, on the history of domestic violence policy in the SPD, says Goldberg, "combined thorough historical research, sociological theory, and personal insights in a way that captured the nitty-gritty of police work within a broader context that provided a new framework for understanding this difficult topic."
Low says Goldberg taught him how to find and probe the multiple layers of storytelling in classic pieces of literature such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Low has high compliments for many teachers at UW Bothell, and notes that "IAS Professor David Goldstein introduced me to Raymond Chandler's stories, and my passion for the detective noir was born." Low also was a reporter for the Bothell Commons. "That helped my writing a lot," he says.
But eventually he came back to fiction. "After learning how to write for work and school, I wanted to learn creative writing. That was my ultimate goal when I started school." With one novel published and, he hopes, more to come, Neil Low has found the right beat.
Thick as Thieves includes a character named Sarah Leadley, which also happens to be the name of the Interim Director of the UW Bothell Library. Low is quick to note that the less-than-flattering description of this character is not based on the real Leadley, to whom he presented a copy of Thick as Thieves for the campus collection.