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News / Life / Clark County Life

Get ready for spooky season with books from Clark County authors

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 4, 2020, 6:02am

Scary season used to mean the make-believe fun of Halloween. Nowadays it seems to mean this all-too-real, ongoing crisis in world history.

While there’s no escaping the scary these days, you might enjoy curling up with the comfy sort of scare that actually makes you feel more alive. These books, all written by your Clark County neighbors, are guaranteed to provide seasonal thrills and chills while you stay healthy and safe. Happy Halloween!

Ear for fear

A city as old and weird as Vancouver is bound to accrue ghosts.

For example, there’s the downtown parking structure at Sixth and C streets. Historian and author Pat Jollota was approached by a parking patron who became convinced the place must be haunted after repeatedly feeling “sheer terror” there. Jollota recalled that the site used to be an auto body shop where a boy lost his life in a tragic fire in 1995.

“I seem to be the town’s ear for such things,” said Jollota, who explores dozens of spooky stories in “Haunted Vancouver, Washington,” published by The History Press. It’s a revision of “Darkness Next Door,” a previous book that spanned all of Clark County. The new volume focuses on the city only, updating oft-told tales and adding new ones.

A jogger runs into the Clark County Historical Museum to report an impossible sighting: a team of mules running down Fifth Street, precisely where Army mules were once housed. A resident of Officers Row consistently hears the late-night music of an Army drummer boy shot and killed in 1872 during a drunken brawl at the barracks.

“I love these stories and I love people’s off-the-wall questions,” she said. “I’m never skeptical. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I believe these people are being truthful. When a place is old enough, you’re going to find stories. Whether or not it’s a ghost story, it delineates our history.”

Jollota would love to interview one of the VIP ghosts that keep popping up in this uniquely historical city, she said.

“I think it would be fascinating to talk to Gen. Alfred Sully,” she said.

Sully was a brutal warrior during the Civil and Indian wars, then led a life of increasing melancholy and ill health after his wife and baby died. He died in an upstairs room in the Grant House on Officers Row in 1879.

A gaunt military figure has been spotted prowling around up there in the years since, Jollota writes, even as the place has become a restaurant. A psychic who once visited with a TV crew ran into all kinds of weird problems, including power and cellphone failures.

“There’s someone here, and he’s laughing at us now,” the psychic said.

Strong woman

Current events have overtaken prolific Camas author Gary Corbin and his police-procedural novels.

At the start of Corbin’s “A Woman of Valor,” rookie police officer Valorie Dawes gets roughed up during hand-to-hand combat training while a couple dozen male colleagues enjoy the show. When the lesson is over and nobody is watching, Dawes’ 200-pound training partner slams her to the ground and kneels on her back. No offense intended — just a little extra fun.

“I had all those issues in mind, sexism and police brutality” years ago when developing the story with his father, Corbin said. Years later, when sexual assault and the #MeToo movement gained center stage in America, Corbin realized his female cop story was right on time.

Protagonist Dawes is driven to become a cop after being molested as a youth. She faces profound personal demons and institutional hurdles along the way. Published in spring 2019, Corbin’s novel has been celebrated especially for its believably complex female lead. (Since then, Corbin has published a prequel called “In Search of Valor” and is now working on a third installment in the series, he said.)

How did this male writer create the realistically nuanced Valorie Dawes? By listening, Corbin said.

“I have six sisters, and they were never shy about educating me,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of strong women in my life.”

When Corbin’s father showed him around his old stomping grounds in Hartford, Conn. — the model city for “Valor” — Corbin cold-called the local police and met with a female police sergeant (at a Dunkin’ Donuts) who regaled him with insider tales of what it was like to be a woman cop in a man’s world.

“It was quite the eye opening conversation,” Corbin said.

Perilous Portland

The private dick in “Derailed” sounds hardboiled: grimly operating a detective agency in the city’s “armpit,” a place beset by pickpockets, drug dealers and gang bangers.

“In other words, home. I’m Kelly Pruett, and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” declares the heroine of Mary Keliikoa’s clever and intricate crime novel. “Derailed” was published this year as part of a three-book deal by Epicenter Press.

The armpit in question is Northeast Portland. Keliikoa keeps the scenery engagingly local as she relates Pruett’s first murder case in the wry, clipped cadences of film-noir tough guys. One witness displays “a gap the size of the Columbia River Gorge between his two front teeth.” Pruett never fits in with “the Suzie Homemakers or the PTA moms” in Vancouver, where her daughter attends the Washington State School for the Deaf. Portland MAX trains shake the cobblestones while rumbling perilously close to scurrying pedestrians.

“I used to work for downtown law firms. I worked in those high rises. I rode mass transit,” said Keliikoa, who lives in Ridgefield. “That was my inspiration: What if somebody falls but they actually didn’t fall?”

Pruett the anxious but ambitious newbie P.I., who has mournfully taken over her late father’s business, “came to me pretty fully formed,” Keliikoa said. “She’s trying to get out of her dad’s shadow and her marriage. She’s trying to find herself. She wants to be seen in her own right.”

Of course that requires unlocking some shocking family secrets.

“That’s a main theme of this book: Families hold back information because they think they’re protecting us, but in the end it just sets us up,” Keliikoa said. “Everybody is hiding something to protect someone else.”

Female sleuths and the cozy style of genteel, pastoral whodunits are hot publishing trends in recent years. Keliikoa said her novel falls between cozy and hardcore noir.

“There’s not a lot of blood and gore, but there’s a little,” she said. “I like a little bit of grit.”

Dangerous creatures

“Sexual shenanigans” are not what we associate with prim, proper Sherlock Holmes, but author Sam Siciliano usually manages to stir a little spice into his growing series of “Further Adventures” of the world’s greatest detective, published by Titan Books.

“Sherlock Holmes for grown-ups” is how Siciliano described his seven Holmes pastiche novels, all lively variations of the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. The latest, “Sherlock Holmes and the Venerable Tiger,” was inspired by a Doyle story called “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which also involves an officer returned from India with an exotic menagerie of dangerous creatures.

“An eccentric guy out in the countryside with his collection of animals — that really intrigued me,” said Siciliano, who lives in Vancouver.

Siciliano’s main literary love is the atmospheric Victorian era, he said, and he’s also the author of several vampire novels. He was inspired to try Sherlock Holmes pastiches by “The Seven Per-Cent Solution,” a bestselling Holmes adventure from the 1970s by Nicholas Meyer that became a popular movie.

“The peril of pastiche is, it’s such a small niche,” Siciliano said. “Unlike the author of ‘The Seven Per-Cent Solution,’ I’m not going to get rich on this.”

Siciliano said he’s been criticized for ditching Dr. John Watson in favor of his own sidekick and scribe for Holmes, Dr. Henry Vernier.

“I needed a different narrator because I wanted to do different things with the characters,” he said. While he shares some protective feelings about favorite characters — he’s not crazy about recent “outlandish” movie and TV versions of Holmes either, he said — he doesn’t think there’s much to worry about in his “Further Adventures.”

“Holmes is the most popular and long-lived character in fiction,” Siciliano said. “I’m not going to hurt him.”

On the web

“Haunted Vancouver, Washington” by Pat Jollota: www.arcadiapublishing.com/The-History-Press

“Derailed” by Mary Keliikoa: marykeliikoa.com/

“A Woman of Valor” by Gary Corbin: garycorbinwriting.com/

“Sherlock Holmes and the Venerable Tiger” by Sam Siciliano: www.samsiciliano.net/

Vancouver’s main independent bookstore, now open with limited browsing hours, is Vintage Books at 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd.: intage-books.com