The only thing missing from novelist Peggy Townsend’s new thriller See Her Run is a trigger warning. So here goes: If you’re looking for a sweet little whodunit that could have been cribbed from Murder She Wrote, one that won’t bother you with disturbing mental images of death, violence, and the darkness that lurks in the recesses of the human soul, look elsewhere. This ain’t that.
“Ask any reporter who’s worked long enough,” begins one passage, “and they can tell you about the slideshow in their head: The dead man whose arms have been chainsawed from his body, the skeletal remains of an eight-year-old girl who’d been chained in a closet and starved to death by her mentally ill mother. The body of a teenager in an alley with a needle in her arm.”
Townsend was one of the most prominent names in Santa Cruz journalism for her 30-plus years as a reporter and editor for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Until she left the newspaper in 2007, she was the Sentinel’s most illuminating feature writer, specializing in hard-nosed but empathetic portraits of people in the throes of struggle, be it homelessness, illness or tragedy. But before all that, back in the ’70s and ’80s, she covered the cops/court beat, a job that’s not for the emotionally fragile.
“I covered murders and murder trials,” says Townsend in the Pleasure Point home she shares with her husband, longtime former Aptos High head football coach Jamie Townsend. “In that job, I became really familiar with how detectives work, how police work, what happens in an autopsy, what a medical examiner would look for. I’ve seen things that as a civilian I would turn away from in horror. But as a reporter, you look at it in a whole different way—clinical, studied, looking for details.”
All those chops have been brought to bear in Townsend’s first foray into fiction. By coincidence, the publication this month of See Her Run comes at the same time as the new anthology Santa Cruz Noir (see cover story, page 16), which includes Townsend on its roster of contributing writers.
Her Santa Cruz Noir story, titled First Peak, is an eerie, quasi-supernatural take on the housing pressures taking place in Townsend’s neighborhood. But in See Her Run, Townsend wanted to get away from Santa Cruz. The book is set in tech-happy modern-day San Francisco.
“It’s almost uber-California,” she says of San Francisco. “There’s just so much history, so much creativity, so much change, especially now. It mirrors the whole state and the frontier idea, being on the edge of so many things.”
The novel’s protagonist is Aloa Snow, a haunted former newspaper reporter trying to outrun both an eating disorder and a crippling sense of shame from being caught fabricating sources in a story, a mistake that torpedoed a once promising career. Aloa’s self-loathing is stronger than any sense of recrimination from the outside world, so she lives a ghostly life with the only family she has, a collection of friendly misfits at a North Beach dive bar near her home.
Aloa gets a chance to get back in the journalism game when she receives a call from an old flame, a wealthy tech entrepreneur running a respected news website. The story is an investigation into the death of a young woman, a trained athlete whose body was found in the Nevada desert and ruled a suicide. Aloa is not eager to take on the assignment, but eventually, with the help of a motley tribe of conspiracy-addled hippie burnouts called the Brain Farm, she jumps into a mystery that eventually reaches halfway around the world and into the highest levels of corporate misbehavior.
The North American publication of See Her Run got a boost from promising early numbers in Australia and the U.K. and a glowing review in Kirkus. (The book is also available in audio.) Townsend, who now works as a writer for UCSC, says that she’s just finished her second installment in the Aloa Snow series, to be published in June 2019. And she’s set for teaching a workshop in detective fiction at this summer’s Catamaran Writing Conference in Pebble Beach.
As for the permeable membrane that separates nonfiction from fiction, Townsend is not ready to declare she’s switched teams. “I like them both,” she says. “I just like figuring out human stories and what makes people tick.”
The current chaos in the San Francisco housing market is a major subtheme in See Her Run, and Townsend promises that she’ll continue to make the city a central preoccupation in the series. “I have an idea for book three already,” she says. “And I still love [writing about] San Francisco. There’s just so much history to discover. Even now, the parallels with times past are really striking. It has a lot of possibilities I’ll continue to explore.” After a pause, she laughs. “Unless I can find a way to set it in Hawaii.”