PORT TOWNSEND — Lust, opium, perilous cross-dressing, smuggling between Port Townsend and Victoria: Katrina Carrasco’s debut novel pulses with these.
“The Best Bad Things,” set here in the 1880s, stars Alma Rosales, a sensual 29-year-old spy who dresses as a man to get her dirty work done.
Carrasco fashioned this woman first — and then, as she tells it, “got to work researching to find a place as interesting as she was.” The docks at Port Townsend Bay provided that.
Readers have a chance to meet Alma and Carrasco at 1 p.m. Saturday as the author gives a reading at the Cotton Building, 607 Water St. Admission is by donation to the Jefferson County Historical Society event; $5 is suggested.
Carrasco, who lives in Seattle, has reaped praise from critics — from Publishers Weekly to Vulture — for the novel’s heroine and historical details.
Alma is a bisexual Latina who works with her former lover, Delphine Beaumond; both came to Port Townsend from San Francisco. They’re fictional, as are their particular exploits, but Carrasco conducted copious research through the county historical society and books such as Thomas Canfield’s “Port Townsend: An Illustrated History.”
“The Best Bad Things” delves deep into the underworld, with Alma disguising herself as Jack Camp, insinuating her way inside the local smuggling ring, tracking a drug thief and barely keeping her secrets. All of this unfolds across uptown and downtown Port Townsend, key sites in the 19th century drug pipeline between Canada and the United States.
“With opium smuggling, customhouse corruption, [and] schemes to bring in a railroad spur, the young town had plenty going on to feed the book’s plot,” Carrasco said.
With this tale, Carrasco wants to challenge the idea of the “Wild West” as a place populated only by straight white people.
“Both Alma and Delphine are queer women of color,” she said, “and while they stand out in the Puget Sound, their presence there is part of the less-seen historical record of the American West. I wanted the book to show that time and place through the lens of characters we rarely get to see, but who were certainly present.”
“The Best Bad Things” also explores mask-wearing in daily life. Whatever our era and location, we put those faces on, the author added.
“It’s a process that fascinates me, the way we may don one persona for work, possibly a muted one to get along with colleagues, and then slip into a different psychic mantle on weekends.”
Carrasco, who works in the tech sector by day, doesn’t talk much with co-workers about her other life as a crime novelist.
Then there’s code-switching: changing your speech to signal belonging to a particular group of friends or acquaintances.
“I often code-switch in my spoken interactions, especially when speaking to other Latinx people or other queer people,” Carrasco said.
Raised by an Ecuadorian-American mother in Orange County, Calif., “I was fortunate to have a large Latinx community while growing up,” she added.
This family influenced her creation of “Best Bad’s” Alma. And Carrasco finds a rich vein of inspiration among her fellow novelists: Rebecca Makkai (“The Great Believers”), Ottessa Moshfegh (“My Year of Rest and Relaxation”) and Britta Lundin (“Ship It”). That last book, she said, “reminded me of the pure joy accessible through fiction.”
In “The Best Bad Things,” Carrasco is determined to bring her reader inside Alma’s skin — fleshing out a woman complex and confounding — “not necessarily likable, but fully realized and impossible to look away from.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.