UW Bothell Alumnus Previews New Book
UW Bothell alumnus and true crime novelist Neil Low has endured the cold shoulder of some of his own members on the Seattle Police force and digs from family members, one who lovingly calls his genre “smut.” As Low gears up for this week’s book signing, we asked him to give us the scoop on his latest work, “Deadly Attraction”, and his life as a true crime novelist who is still with the force.
Book Signing: Third Place Books -
Thursday, January 24th 7:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
17171 Bothell Way NE Lake Forest Park
What is your new novel about?
“Deadly Attraction” is based on real Seattle murders that once made national news. A carpenter finds the body of a young woman near the Green Lake walking path. Because she was the niece of Dan Lockhart, the County Commissioner who had once worked for Chief of Detectives Mike Ketchum, private investigators have been asked to work with the police. Alan Stewart and Vera Deward accept the challenge and employ their unique combination of old-fashioned sleuthing, hard knocks, bruised knuckles, and keen observation skills to help solve this heinous crime. They fight their way through gambling dens, the Chinese Underground, and the Seattle Waterfront, believing that a serial killer might be collecting trophies in the Puget Sound region.
Can you name a few elements that are based on real cases?
The victim's body was found across from the Green Lake Library, near the walking path, staged to look like she had been the victim of a sex crime. Another referenced murder involves the "Lady of the Lake," whose body was discovered by fishermen in 1940, in Lake Crescent, wrapped and bound in carpet. Because of the cold and the chemicals in the water, her body went through a process called saponification, in which she literally turned to soap. Her flesh could literally be scooped from her body.
Did you always like to write or did your first bite from the writing bug come after reading officer-turned novelist Joe Wambaugh’s work?
You are exactly right about the Joe Wambaugh connection. He was required reading when I was in the police academy in 1971, and I remember thinking: this guy knows a thing or two about real police work and how it's done. I decided then that I was going to accumulate stories and hone my writing skills so I could write like Joe. The stories came quickly; the writing skills had to wait until I entered the UWB in 1995. At that point I was already up for captain and didn't need a degree in police work, so I took all the writing classes I could fit into my schedule. I wanted classes that would help me with my dream of becoming a writer. I always thank my college professors in the Acknowledgment section of my novels, because I wouldn't be the writer I am without their encouragement and help.
Best-selling true-crime writer Ann Rule praised your first book, “Thick as Thieves”.
Ann Rule is a treasured icon at the Seattle Police Department. She has a number of Homicide detectives on speed dial, and they in turn will consult with her as much and as often as she needs when she's researching her true crime books. I met her while I was the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit commander, and she gave me writing and publishing advice. Besides “Thick as Thieves”, Ann and I shared a table at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop on December 1st, when I launched “Deadly Attraction”. We were both involved in signing our books and exchanging banter. When she found out which cases “Deadly Attraction” was based on, we engaged in some banter about the details, and she bought my book. What impressed me about Ann was that she took the time to sign and endorse all of the books her fans brought to her. She didn't whip out a signature without looking up, she made eye contact and visited with every one of them. I like that, and you don't always see that! I have a ton more stories about Ann, but we'll run out of room and not finish this interview.
You write about crime and police corruption. What kind of response do you get from those you have to work with every day?
Having been on long enough to know some of the old guard, I had my concerns about how the old timers would take my stories. Many of them come from the school where you're never supposed to say anything negative about another cop, even if he's crooked, a bully, and a thief--but I've never subscribed to that theory, because then you're being held hostage by those willing to abuse their powers and forget their oath to protect the City. The carnivores held rule over the herbivores. The Police Union's “Guardian” refused to run my ads for my novels for the first five years. I'm told that it wasn't because of the content of my stories, it was because I had sustained a number of Internal Affairs complaints against members of their board, which is true. So they were proving a point to me (whatever it was I missed it) that they didn't have to run my ads. Really? What newspaper turns down ads that help them pay for their overhead? Whatever was eating them has lightened up some, and they now run my ads. Interestingly, I've had a number of officers and old timers from the era come forward to tell me tales about the old days that are incredible. Of course I write them down and store them for future reference.
Some might say you’re airing the family’s dirty laundry. How would you respond?
I think that airing the dirty laundry needs to be done, whether it's your family's or work. I believe you have to acknowledge and learn from the past. In actuality, my corrupt characters are created the same way as my chief protagonists; they're composites of people I've heard about over the years. To my surprise I have found people who fondly remember the old days of paying off their local cops. Sometimes it was a complete shakedown by the cops, but often times these real characters were operating their businesses outside the law. They paid off the cops in order to be allowed to break laws that no one wanted enforced--like gambling and liquor--the so-called victimless crimes. I like to air this out and vet it through the storytelling process, rather than have it come across as a didactic preaching by me.
What does your family think after reading your books knowing the majority of them are based on your experiences in the department?
The vast majority of comments from my family are very good. Earlier this year one of my nieces invited me to speak at her book club's meeting, which was a lot of fun. I also have a sister who buys as many as sixteen of my novels and sends them to all her friends. What's not to like about that? But occasionally there is a grumble and a caddy remark, like: "Neil writes smut." Others have asked, "How do you know what goes on inside a Chinese brothel?" Most often this is said with humor, but where there's humor there's often truth. Some of them are concerned about where I've worked during my police career (Two years undercover VICE, if you're still wondering about the brothel and smut.) My mother has read all my novels and loans them proudly to her friends--including our former parish priest! But in general, I sense a feeling of pride, with another sister adding her two cents: "That's my brother!"
You put the UW Bothell library to good use when you were writing your first novel. Where was your favorite place to write “Deadly Attraction?”
I was just telling someone about writing much of my first novel on the second floor of the UWB library, and that still remains a comfy hideout for me; although I don't write there now as much as I once did. My new home is larger and I have my own office space. This is where I get the vast majority of it done, but then the writing process doesn't always involve typing on the computer. I spend a lot of time researching my stories to make sure they are historically and factually accurate. I can do that on a computer anywhere, but then for the story I'm working on now, I've had to buy a couple of books to research this more obscure subject matter. So let's not forget Starbucks! Sometimes that's the best place to put my feet up and let the scene I'm working on percolate in my brain for a while, testing fresh angles or approaches to describing something that's been done a 1,000 times before. I don't know about you, but I get tired of seeing information-exchange scenes in cop movies always shot in topless bars. It's done so often it's become a cliché. I try to come up with a new setting or way for giving the reader information they need to know to move the plot along.
What does it mean to you when you do a book signing in your community?
What I like most about a book signing is meeting new fans, people who only know me through my work--but I don't know them at all. It is a bit like one of those Sally Field Academy Award moments where I realize I have bared my soul and poured a lot of what's inside me into my novel, exposing my deepest feelings, thoughts, and ideas to the outside world, and now some of them have come to tell me they liked what I showed them. This is much different than asking your mother if she liked your novel--of course she does--even if it's smut! This is getting input from your target audience. I love to talk with them and find out what story elements worked best for them. I recently received some very nice feedback from a non-reader who likes my novels because of the banter between the main characters, Vera Deward and Alan Stewart. Another new fan has met me for coffee and asked more about the backgrounds of my main characters. He was pleasantly surprised that somewhere I have dates of birth written down, along with more about their origins. He then suggested a story idea, a prequel - that has a lot of appeal to me. After reading a posting on Facebook, this same fan has suggested another story idea in post-war Germany that also has a lot of appeal. This means that this fan has really gotten into my characters and wants to see more of them. I love that!
You like to keep UW Bothell in the picture. This time, Chancellor Kenyon Chan’s endorsement is on the back cover.
I'm particularly pleased that Chancellor Kenyon Chan is a fan and has written an endorsement on the back cover of “Deadly Attraction”. He and I have discussed the value of my UWB education and how it has taught me to teach myself new skills, like a writing techique I am now using in my novels. My editor has commented to the publisher that I keep getting better, but he doesn't know what it is actually that I've done differently. Chancellor Chan knows! Additionally, I would like to add that I presented UW President Michael Young with a copy of “Deadly Attraction” as a host gift during the Christmas Season. He graciously thanked me and said this is a genre he likes to read, and he was looking forward to reading mine on his next trip.