How tunnels in Portland, Oregon inspired author Jessie Chandler

Shanghai Murder by Jessie Chandler

Shanghai Murder, the follow up to Blood Money Murder in my Shay O’Hanlon Caper Series, has been in the works for what feels like an eon. I’m forking ecstatic it’s finally going to see the light of day! Initially, when I learned Portland, Oregon had tunnels beneath the city, I knew I had to do something with them in a book. That kind of urban exploration absolutely draws me in like a magnet. I’ve stuck lots of old, abandoned, creepy locations into a number of my books, and I just rub my hands together in delight. When I do this, I most often use something real, which either is still around or did exist but no longer does. Bingo Barge Murder had a floating bingo hall, Hide and Snake Murder featured the defunct and now razed Columbia Heights Arena where the Mighty Duck’s movie was filmed, Chip off the Ice Block Murder involved an abandoned psychiatric hospital. Blood Money Murder involved Shay and her sister Lisa kidnapped and held in a dark, cobweb-filled cellar beneath a rickety old house and when they escaped, they were so hungry they tried to eat mummified peanuts in an old mercantile museum.

With Shanghai Murder, I explored Portland’s Shanghai tunnels, both in real life and in the book. Legend holds the tunnels, located mainly beneath the Chinatown neighborhood, were initially built as an easy way to transport goods offloaded from ships into the city. Eventually, numerous saloons, in cahoots with various ship’s captains, installed what were called dead drops—trap doors in the floor in front of the bar. When the joint fired up and customers were packed into the bar hip to shoulder like sweaty, stinky sardines, drinking up their hard-won paychecks, the bartender would push a button, and whoever was standing on the trap door dropped into a holding cell in the basement. The ship’s captains would then pay the saloon per head and use the kidnapped men to crew their ships, often sailing to Shanghai for goods and then back. Sometimes these poor souls would return up to two years later, or might never come back at all.

The city of Portland denies any of this ever happened, but just before Covid, I went on a Shanghai Tunnel Tour. It blew me away. Some years ago, a Stumptown citizen decided to excavate some of the tunnels for preservation and posterity. The excavation was difficult because the city had upgraded buildings and added deeper foundations in case of earthquakes, which blocked off many of the tunnels. The tour itself was underneath Hobo’s Bar in Chinatown. The things we saw made me think there was a good possibility the legend was true. If you see me at an event, ask me to show you pictures. It’s really pretty nuts. So is the tale truth or is the City of Portland correct? Only the ghosts know for sure.

So, anyway, I stuck poor Shay down in the tunnels, made them a bit longer and more complex thanks to the wonders of fiction, and ran her ragged as her best friend Coop and her soon-to-be wife, JT, frantically tried to find her. I also wove into the story the iconic Witch’s Castle, another Portland must-see. I just love this stuff.

I also had a great time conjuring up BOB, or the Big on Beans Convention, which was why my Minneapolis peeps were in Portland in the first place. It was great fun playing with Voodoo Doughnuts,and various eateries, both real and created out of thin air. A sense of place is one of the aspects of writing I love to work in, and readers who know the area usually delight in reading about places and things they recognize.

So if you know of any abandoned, eerie, fascinating places you’d like to see in a story, I’d love to hear about them. And who knows? It might end up in a novel!

Find Shanghai Murder and the rest of the Shay O’Hanlon Caper Series here!