Orcas Island, the setting for my latest novel, An Unseen Current, is the largest of the San Juan Islands. Now, with names like those I know you’re picturing some other south of the equator island, where the palm fronds sway and whales frolic off-shore. You’d be right about the whales, but thanks to a 1790’s Spanish explorer who was anxious to impress his boss, the Viceroy of Mexico (Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo) the San Juan Islands are bit further North – in Washington State. So while, Orcas whales do indeed frolic, if you visit Orcas you’re more likely to be doused with rain and smacked by an evergreen bow than conked on the head by a coconut. However, the San Juans do share some of the same cultural characteristics as the tropical islands we all picture. Life there runs on island time, people do all know each other, and islanders learn to make do with the resources they have on hand. Accessible only by ferry or seaplane, Orcas is full of artists, foodies, retirees, tourists, and those who just don’t really care for the hustle and bustle of the mainland. And if you’re a mystery writer, it’s the perfect place for a murder.
I’ve been visiting Orcas for most of my life. My dad’s best friend lives there and summer visits were pretty normal (if you didn’t mind the glass outhouse), and it wasn’t until college that I recognized the murderous potential of Orcas. I was teaching a water safety class for girls at Camp Moran and I realized that it was the perfect setting for an American version of the classic “English Country House” mystery. The English Country House mystery’s cropped up with invention detective fiction and featured an amateur sleuth dropped into a murder mystery when one of the guests at their house party is killed. The amateur sleuth is practically forced to interfere since village police are clearly unsuited to handle the case, London police are practically unreachable, and by George, no one gets away with killing one of my guests! On Orcas, although there are police, the nearest major crimes detective is a ferry ride away in Anacortes, the suspect pool is limited to the population of the island, and while my ex-CIA agent character, seventy-something Tobias Yearly, doesn’t think he owns the island, he does think he’s the most qualified to find who murdered his best friend. Tobias, and his granddaughter Tish, must make their way through suspects from all over the island as they contend with a suspicious police detective, an angry baker, and killer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
As I wrote An Unseen Current I tried to capture all the quirkiness and beauty of Orcas, but also to show that even small towns and islands can hide a killer. Now, hopefully, next time I visit, none of the locals take exception to that or I may find myself stuck in the glass outhouse with someone throwing stones.