John Denson

Created by Richard Hoyt

“I’m a gentleman and a scholar; would you care for some screw-top?”
— Denson greets a client in Decoys

Consider him Gonzo-lite. Or maybe a New Age Northwest reincarnation of Shell Scott. Or just a hippy-dippy eye who has certainly inhaled.

But there’s no denying that Pacific Northwest private eye JOHN DENSON marches to the beat of a different drum. He’s a “laid-back flake,” according to his creator, a thirty-something Aquarius when we first meet him in Decoys (1980), with a yen for darts, cheap screw-top wine and raw vegetables, especially cauliflower. And he’s not adverse to a little bit of good ol’ sex, either, although he does spare us the slo-mo replays.

He’s an earthy type, crude but not rude, given to sometimes erratic behaviour, but extremely loyal to his friends. He’s been known to wear bright yellow boxer shorts with a graphic of a smoking, very long-barreled gun on front, and he keeps a stuffed English pitbull in his apartment to answer the doorbell with pre-recorded barks.

At last! A private eye who’s not ashamed of having a good time! A nice change of pace from the usual gloom and doom.

Not that there isn’t some pretty dark humour lurking in here, tucked away among all the whimsy, mind you. The Siskiyou Two Step (1983), for example, opens with Denson riding the very naked–and very dead–body of a young woman down some Oregon rapids.

Now that’s not something you see every day…

Denson pals around with, and occasionally enlists the aid of drinking buddy and darts partner Willie Prettybird, a rather sizable full-blooded Cowlitz who claims to receive messages from animal spirits. John cheerfully refers to him as “Chief Dumbshit.”

Denson doesn’t like guns, and he tools around town in battered heaps, generally an ancient Fiat, or sometimes an old VW van. He’s got a rather murky background in the CIA, as well as a stint as a journalist in Honolulu, and later Seattle. When the Seattle paper was bought out by a large chain “with their efficiency experts, barborous little bastards in pin-striped suits” who got “rid of the fun,” he chucked it to become a private eye.

He’s got a rep as “a good detective…but quirky.” He only takes on cases that interest him, and he doesn’t have much use for pretentiousness or the status quo.

It’s a long, meandering series that swoops and dives, and one you you should never quite count out. Unlike Roger Simon’s Moses Wine, a similar “hippie” eye, Denson is defiantly unrepentant. In 2003, after an absence of eight years, he returned in the New Age-ish The Weatherman’s Daughters, still pretty much the same.

Oh, sure, he’s relocated to the northwest corner of Oregon, at one point living in a cabin in Whorehouse Meadows somewhere in the Cascade Mountains, but otherwise he’s still pony-tailed and horny, still partial to pot, cheap wine and Carlos Castaneda, and still palling around with Willie. As he puts it in Siskiyou, “all that really matters are friends, good times, a full belly, a little screw-top, and a lay now and then–not necessarily in that order.”


Richard Hoyt has a B.S. and M.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Hawaii, and was a fellow in national and international editing and reporting at the Washington Journalism Center. After serving as a counterintelligence agent for the U.S. Army, he began working as a reporter based in Honolulu, working for both the morning and afternnon papers, as well as Newsweek. He later taught journalism and writing courses at the University of Maryland and at Lewis and Clark College. He’s also a bit of a globetrotter, having lived and worked for periods in Negril, Jamaica; Bray, Ireland; Torquay, southern England; Amsterdam; Seville; Lagos, Portugal; Sao Paulo; San Ignacio, Belize; Tangier; Hong Kong; and on the islands of Negros, Mindanao, and Cebu in the Philippines. He’s ridden trains across the Soviet Union and riverboats from the headwaters of the Amazon to the Atlantic. He is the author of over twenty-five novels, including international thrillers and forays into magic realism. “Writing fiction is adult play,” he says. “I’m still having fun.”


  • “I did it because of Sam Spade.”
    — the opening line to Decoys


  • “And no matter how much pot and homemade ale he consumes, the stoner shamus keeps doping out clues until he unravels every twisted strand of a far-out mystery that’s best appreciated with a plate of special brownies close at hand.”
    –Frank Sennett on Pony Girls (Booklist)
  • “Hoyt’s offbeat characters are a treat, and his dialogue can be woodsy without lapsing into parody. He teeters on the brink of Hemingway-speal occasionally but keeps his plot rolling along. This is Northern Exposure in a sholder holster.”
    — Chicago Tribune on Whoo?




Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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