by G.M. Ford
Published by Avon Twilight
288 pages, 1999
A Private Eye-Opener
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Wild Bill Waterman is something of a political legend in author G.M. Ford's lightly fictionalized Seattle. A former labor organizer with an over-the-top sense of humor (he once appeared at a campaign debate clad as Mahatma Gandhi, towing a goat), Waterman "parlayed his local notoriety into eleven terms on the Seattle City Council," as Ford explained in his first novel, Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca? (1995). "He'd run for mayor four times and had been narrowly defeated each time. While it was fun to have Wild Bill Waterman sitting on the council, making absurd proposals, keeping the bureaucrats on their toes, the good people of Seattle had instinctively known that Wild Bill was not the kind of guy you'd want running the whole show."
Succeeding generations of Seattleites have looked still more skeptically upon Wild Bill, lumping him in with that dusty old school of backroom-dealing American politicos who were better at twisting arms and calling in chits than shaping innovative public policies. Yet he remains a powerful figure against whom his only son, private eye Leo Waterman, measures himself and is measured by others. This was obvious in the first four of Ford's Waterman stories; but Leo's debt and attachment to his late father become especially significant in Last Ditch, when he's forced to defend Wild Bill against charges that he took part in a murder 30 years ago.
The excitement begins when Leo enlists "the Boys" -- his familiar quartet of down-and-out deputies -- to help him spruce up the grounds around his parents' 12-room manse on Queen Anne Hill, a house in which Leo has recently settled with his lover and childhood friend, forensic technician Rebecca Duvall. While razing a small greenhouse, they stumble across the distinctively one-handed skeleton of Peerless Price, an archconservative newspaper columnist who disappeared mysteriously in 1969, at the very apogee of his influence and in the midst of a heavily publicized feud with Bill Waterman over competing Fourth of July parades.
Could Wild Bill have offed his nemesis, then planted him in his own backyard? There's no question that the two men despised one another. Price, a McCarthyesque Red-baiter who "could find the makings for a Communist conspiracy at a PTA bake sale" and was known to pay for information that might help him ruin his political opponents, became obsessed in his last years with dethroning Wild Bill. He hated the councilman for his popularity among voters, his liberal attitudes, and particularly his anti-Vietnam War stance. ("For most of the sixties, Peerless Price seldom referred to Wild Bill Waterman as anything except Hanoi Bill.") After years of enduring splenetic attacks in print and in public, was Wild Bill finally provoked to shoot the columnist in the back of the head?
Even Leo Waterman must concede how unlikely it is that one of Price's numerous other enemies could have killed him and secreted his corpse in Wild Bill's patch without the veteran pol catching on. However, our hero rankles at how quickly the media and Peerless' family accept his father's casting in the vengeful slayer role. Leo feels more than a little obliged to protect Wild Bill's memory. So he decides to investigate Peerless' demise himself -- a pursuit that soon has Leo battling scandal-hungry reporters, jousting with his smug Uncle Pat (who avers that to deny the councilman's guilt "merely prolongs the agony"), and making even some of Wild Bill's surviving friends oddly nervous.
Readers who've followed the Waterman series should have known that Leo would, at some stage, be compelled to reassess his father's personal and professional history. After all, this gumshoe has existed (not always comfortably) in the titanic shadow of Wild Bill for his entire life. Even now, he's merely scratching out a modest living while he awaits an inheritance from his father, due him when he turns 45 years of age. Not to get too Freudian here, but in order for Leo to complete his self-definition, he had to move beyond his past. It's just a relief that author Ford doesn't lard Leo's re-evalution of Wild Bill with overstated pathos, anger, or psychobabble, as some authors might have done. Instead, we find the detective moving haltingly and sometimes fearfully -- yet always with compassion -- toward a fuller understanding of his pater. "I'm keeping an open mind," Leo contends, with noticeably less confidence than he might like to display.
Remarkably, this personal aspect of the tale doesn't overwhelm the other plot treats in Last Ditch. Ford weaves his subplot expertly into a much broader story that involves the smuggling of illegal immigrants, long-nurtured enmities, and the uses and abuses of political authority. He also sets up engaging parallels between Leo's discoveries about Wild Bill's connivances and indiscretions... and the more wrenching realizations of a prominent Asian businessman whose own father may have been a casualty of Bill Waterman's relativistic ethics.
If this yarn doesn't veer quite so far into comedic territory as a few of Ford's previous works, it nonetheless delivers the clever dialogue and surprising twists that are welcome hallmarks of this series. Leo Waterman started out sobriety-challenged and a tad world-weary; but he's grown over five adventures now into a likable, albeit sarcastic, figure -- a Fiat-driving Everyman who can complain about quotidian annoyances such as the ardent enforcers of parking meter time limits (he talked in Slow Burn about buying a T-shirt "emblazoned with the words: `Meter Maids Eat Their Young,' which I proudly wore whenever both circumstances and the weather permitted") without sounding depressing or especially bitter. His tossed-off observations about human society and behavior can be priceless. Worth repeating, from Last Ditch, is Leo's recollection of a blind date he'd gone on shortly after his divorce, and how he had suddenly found himself stumped when the pleasant but boring woman with whom he was dining asked, "Are you having a good time?"
Usually, answering a question such as this is easy, because, unless you're a barbarian, your options are limited. As I see it, you either pass the buck with a question of your own such as "Are you?" A pathetic, shopworn ruse lacking in both style and originality. Or you try to change the subject to something... anything less threatening than your own feelings. "How's the wine?" for instance. The problem with this sort of random segue is that, à la Groucho Marx, anybody who'd fall for it wouldn't be somebody with whom you'd want to be sharing a meal. So you're pretty much left doing what everybody does in a moment like that, you tell 'em what it is you think they want to hear. "Oh, yeah. Real good." It's like après sex. I mean, what the hell are you going to tell somebody you've just been doing the hokey pokey with when they look over and give some variation of the old "It was good for me; was it good for you?" I mean, it's not like you can yawn into the back of your hand and reckon how, all in all, you'd rather have been pulling weeds in the front yard. No sir. You can't even sidestep the issue with something like "I especially liked the part where you moved." No... no. Unless you want to be short-listed for the Goth of the Month Award, you come up with something life-affirming. Period. No matter what anybody says, some situations do not cry out for candor.
Further distinguishing the Waterman books is Ford's fond and knowledgeable use of Seattle -- both its lesser-known contemporary sites and its often-eccentric history. Almost as deftly as James Ellroy uses Los Angeles or Chester Himes used Harlem, so Ford employs Seattle well as a sort of exotic character in his novels. Anybody who has ever wheeled past the city's still-not-completed, retractable-roofed baseball stadium (set to open later this year) will feel a sharp thrill of recognition as they see Last Ditch's final action sequence unfold there, amidst the ballpark's looming concrete forms and scaffolding. And only a person well-read in the Emerald City's past (as Ford evidently is) would recognize the inspiration for this story's "Garden of Eden," supposedly a gay nightclub that cops raided in the 1960s at Peerless Price's behest. It's surely based on the real-life Garden of Allah, a one-time speakeasy and favorite First Avenue hangout for sailors that, in 1946, was converted into Seattle's first gay bar and gained renown for its glitzy variety shows and female impersonators.
Last Ditch isn't without its faults. Rebecca could have phoned in her part, so little developed is she in this book. The Boys enjoy only slightly more spotlight time, making one hungry for the earlier Bum's Rush (1997), in which they seemed on the verge of becoming significant players in this series. And Leo is too-astoundingly inept in figuring out some of the relationship dynamics that have caused or will cause most of the trouble in this tale.
However, it's hard not to appreciate a novel that does as well as this one in deflating egos, exposing hypocrisies, and -- Ford's specialty -- milking humor from sacred cows. | March 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is a Seattle resident and crime fiction editor of January Magazine.