Steve Oliver says that he's old enough to always want to live in the past. The writer won't give his age, even to the point of argument, but he remembers when movies weren't all remakes or sequels. Most of all, Oliver recalls when you could easily find a good crime story.
He's trying to revive the spirit of mystery and crime writing with his fledgling fiction quarterly The Dark City, which features Oliver's Spokane-based short stories, in addition to pieces from other writers in based in the Western U.S. It's a mix of classic detective tales, whodunits and even some noir-ish mystery. Oliver says his goal is to capture the milieu of Alfred Hitchcock's films in short-story form. It's about capturing "the dark side of human life," and he knows that's something people will never cease being curious about.
"People are interested in crime because it's the most dramatic act of human beings, to either break the law or violate someone else's right to live," says Oliver. "When everybody is behaving well, nobody wants to read about it."
Through The Dark City, now in its second issue, Oliver hopes to create an appreciation of this corner of literature — which he says has fallen victim to formula and cliché over the years — at least at the local level. He loves the old Raymond Chandler stories and hopes his pieces can capture some of that. In October's inaugural issue, he wrote about a man dying from cancer who sets about murdering all the psychics, spiritual gurus, life coaches and other seers who continue to tell him he's the picture of health.
There's violence, but it's not graphic. Oliver isn't looking to put gore in The Dark City; there's enough of that out there already.
"What I'm looking for is to have stories that have more of a sense of place and real people," says Oliver.
In the 1970s, Oliver experienced a "self-inflicted" mental episode that landed him in a hospital. He'd been experimenting with spiritualism and that led to madness; that's where he leaves it.
When he got healthy, he took one of the only jobs he could find — driving a cab, often late into the night, through the streets of Spokane.
"In the 1970s, cab driving was pretty wild here. All of the cabs were junkers and all of the drivers were sleazeballs," says Oliver. "I'm not saying everyone, but it was a low-rent job, especially in the middle of the night."
Oliver eventually landed a coveted job at Microsoft in the '80s and moved to the Seattle area, where he worked for eight years. Those were good times to have worked at Microsoft, which is why Oliver has been able to focus so much time on writing.
When he came back to Spokane, he mined his mental episode for the story that would become his first novel, Moody Gets the Blues, a tale of a cab driver still suffering from psychiatric issues who decides to become a private investigator. The Spokane-set story spawned two sequels.
With some successes under his belt, Oliver has looked to help shape the skills of other local writers through a writing group with which he's published a pair of anthologies. One of those writers is Barbara Curtis, who has a piece in each of the first two Dark City collections. The recently retired music teacher and longtime member of the Spokane Symphony recently dove headfirst into her second love, fiction, with a little help from Oliver.
"He's not a gentle critic, which did me a lot of good," says the 66-year-old Curtis. "I just feel like I have done better and better with my stories until I was encouraged to get them published."
In the most recent Dark City, Curtis lends one of the lighter stories to be found in the publication — a story about a retired woman who thinks that the knowledge she's gleaned from reading old mystery novels will help her solve crime in her neighborhood. It's decidedly tongue-in-cheek and harkens to pulp caper stories we don't often come across these days. Curtis hopes that her stories, and those of others in Dark City, can spread the mystery bug.
"I think mysteries can be a real challenge to the reader if they're well written," she says.
Most everything Oliver writes is set in Spokane, which isn't a bad place to serve as the backdrop for sordid tales, he says. The city has had its rough times, and even now, he says, you can find some of the oddest, most hideous crimes in our local headlines.
There's a darkness here that he likes to explore, and he does so with detail and grace, mentioning certain pockets of the region with a specificity that lends an extra layer for local readers. Perhaps even more intriguing is Oliver's ability to take us back in time to — as in his most recent story — the 1950s, a period he feels safer exploring for his writing.
"I would also say that I'm writing about the past because whatever the crime, when you have a distance from it, it can be used more as entertainment. When it's current and gruesome, it's real people," he says.
Now tasked with filling up four issues a year with stories, Oliver is taking submissions from across the nation and wouldn't mind more local stories, too. He'll take a good story, wherever it comes from.
"Even if they're tongue-in-cheek, whatever level they are, they're out of someone's real experience, which is perhaps even more interesting to think about," says Oliver. ♦
The Dark City launch party • Thu, Feb. 4, at 7 pm • Auntie's Bookstore • 402 W. Main • Copies also available at thedarkcitymysterymagazine.com