The Deader the Better
by G.M. Ford
Published by Avon Twilight
384 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Setting the Woods On Fire
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
That G.M. Ford just makes me sick. I mean, I've been hearing about him and his Seattle private eye, Leo Waterman, for quite a while now, but until recently I'd never gotten around to actually reading any of the books in his popular and critically acclaimed series. Well, I've just polished off the most recent entry, The Deader the Better, and I'm feeling a little queasy.
The problem isn't that Ford's no good. It's that he makes this crime writing thing look easy. Too easy. Nauseatingly easy, if you ask this particular aspiring novelist. Leo (and what kinda name is that for a hard-boiled hero, anyway?) is the affable bastard child of a thousand rough-and-ready private eyes, a regular-Joe Avenger for the 1990s and beyond, a blue-collar Spenser with a trust fund waiting in the wings, a land-locked and laid-back Travis McGee for the new millennium. Ford's effortless prose makes Leo about as hard to swallow as a cold beer on a hot summer day.
There's something refreshingly retro about this book. Maybe it's because I get so wrapped up in the existential angst and haunted introspection of all those men and women in fedoras and trenchcoats trudging down the fabled mean streets of detective fiction, carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. But I forget sometimes that this genre's roots go back not just to Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe and their numerous overly contemplative imitators, but all the way back to the slam! bang! pow! pulp stories, in which the mystery angle was often just a peg on which to hang shoot-'em-ups, car chases, fist fights and the booze-fueled seductions of long-legged dames with lust in their eyes and .32s in their purses. Private eye action as we liked it.
Thankfully, G.M. Ford hasn't forgotten.
Sure, Leo's a couple of giant evolutionary steps past Race Williams or Mike Hammer, but he'd understand those guys. Lord knows, the big galoot gets along with just about anyone. He'll never be accused of being overly picky about the company he keeps. In Deader, his sixth adventure, Leo leaves behind his beloved Seattle to lead a motley crew of friends and acquaintances into the wilds of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula on a mission of vengeance. An equal-opportunity employer, Leo's ragtag band includes: two residentially challenged connoisseurs of inexpensive spirits (in a less-enlightened age they might have been called winos and bums); a lethal bodyguard named Floyd; a couple of wiretappers, one of them a former Associated Press photographer now confined to a wheelchair; Kurtis Ryder III, the scion of a prominent Seattle family and ace second story man; and Narva, a high-priced call girl who's hooking her way through a master's program in business.
In fact, the only person Leo doesn't seem to be getting along with here (besides the bad guys, of course), is his longtime lover, Rebecca Duvall, a forensic pathologist with Seattle's King County medical examiner's office. The pair have recently moved in together, but it seems the ties that bind are starting to chafe a bit, particularly when Rebecca tries to domesticate the easygoing detective.
Among the things Rebecca thinks couples should do together is visit other couples. So as this book gets going, she and Leo head off to the boonies to pay a call on her goddaughter, Claudia, and Claudia's husband, J.D. They live on the outskirts of Stevens Falls, a once-thriving lumber town fallen on hard times. As Leo points out, "Nowadays it was standard-issue Northwest rural. A mill town without a mill. A forest community without a forest. Five blocks on either side of the highway. Ten blocks long.... One of everything except taverns. Those numbered three."
But Stevens Falls boasts of 6,700 residents (according to a "bullet-riddled sign at the west end of town") who won't give up without a fight. They're determined that their burg will survive, even it if means "trying like hell to attract tourists." The problem is, their big plans clash with those of J.D. and Claudia, who dream of building an exclusive fishing camp a few miles outside of town, near Puget Sound. J.D.'s decision to post his land and then close a previously public boat ramp he's purchased only cranks up the community's ire. A few petty acts of vandalism and minor harassment directed against the young couple soon escalate into violence -- and maybe even murder. Could it be that the town's scenic charms and ardent boosterism are covering up something more sinister?
When they discover that J.D. and Claudia are missing, Rebecca and Leo decide to have a little look-see. She intends to handle the bureaucrats, sending Leo off to do what he does best: "Turn over some rocks. Make bad jokes at people. Be obnoxious. Piss somebody off."
Suffice it to say that he succeeds at this effort rather impressively. It's not hard to see why Leo rubs people the wrong way, despite his hail-fellow-well-met ways. Rebecca refers to her lover at one point as a "perpetual adolescent" who "dabble[s] at being a private detective." But he's also a middle-aged smart-ass with very little in the way of self-esteem problems. Leo exhibits what Raymond Chandler called "a disgust for sham and a contempt for pettiness." He tends to get in your face if you get in his way.
There's much to enjoy in The Deader the Better. Ford's writing displays a graceful economy, and once his plot finds its groove, the book takes on a genuinely pleasing rhythm, eventually reaching a satisfying climax. (Cigarette, anyone?)
Leo is an appealing character and narrator. His self-reflections can be memorable ("I'm feeling like an old fart. There's nothing on the radio I like anymore... I watch those TV shows and they've got kids who don't shave yet playing grizzled homicide dicks, on programs I can't remember the names of. The only programs that sell anything I might even remotely want to buy are golf tournaments, and I'm telling you, man, that just scares the hell out of me.") And his unflinching spin on things, while not always overabundant in the ways of political correctness, is often hilariously direct. Leo's descriptions of the fictional Stevens Falls are particularly sharp, and his discoveries there are sufficiently nasty to make the small town sound like a cut-rate, West Coast cousin to Dashiell Hammett's infamous Poisonville, from Red Harvest. You can almost smell the water in the puddles of the unpaved parking lots and the corruption festering behind closed doors.
The banter between Leo and Rebecca, Leo and Floyd, Leo and Narva -- hell, between Leo and just about everyone -- is right on. Ford has a great ear for dialogue, and Leo has a great mouth for spouting it. He warns a grizzled motel owner, who thinks The X-Files is a documentary, that he should watch out, or "they" will "pump him so full of truth drugs [he'll think he's] Roseanne Arnold." Elsewhere, Leo suggests to a local-yokel thug whose tongue was bitten off in a recent bar brawl that he "really ought to consider speech therapy" because he sounds "like Scooby Doo on Quaaludes." And he warns away a pimp's gunman by saying, "We don't want to get grease over everything, do we?"
In the course of things, our hero meets some genuinely intriguing characters on whom he can try out his snappy line of patter. These include a giant but naïve albino with car problems, an "extremely prominent and astonishingly well-connected" woman who will do anything to save her granddaughter, an overweight and lovesick district judge, and G., a would-be tough-guy pimp who has a definite way with words -- usually the wrong ones. (My favorite G. statement: "Discrepancy is the better part of valor.")
Still, Ford's novel is flawed at times. The main plot takes a while to get moving. It putters along in fits and starts at the beginning, despite Leo's daring rescue of a sexually abused young runaway. This is a great scene, by itself, but it ultimately has as little to do with the book as do those bloated openings of James Bond flicks. Making things up as you go along seems to work out for Leo, when he's trying to crack a case, but the same strategy doesn't serve Ford quite as well.
And maybe this book wasn't the best introduction to the Waterman series. Past events, like Leo's inheritance from a politically powerful father and the ins and outs of his relationship with Rebecca, are referred to rather obliquely at times. Yeah, I know. I'm the one who got to the theater late, and I'm sure Leo's many fans will lap up Deader, but it definitely slows the plot down when you're trying to figure out what the hell characters are talking about sometimes.
Come to think of it, I don't give a hoot about the Rebecca-Leo relationship, anyway. Rebecca seems curiously flat, and her domestic squabbles with Leo are no more fascinating than anybody else's. My first reaction when she storms off in anger after an argument is to yell, "Don't slam the door on the way out!"
One final, if minor quibble: The hamlet of Stevens Falls is supposed to be located on the edge of a rain forest that Leo proudly -- but erroneously -- states is North America's only such forest. Anybody who's ever strolled through the rain forests of southern British Columbia or the Tongass National Forest on the southeast Alaskan panhandle could have set the author straight on this matter.
G.M. Ford (his real name's Jerry, but can you really blame him for not using it on his books?) taught creative writing for a couple of decades before he published his first novel, Who the Hell is Wanda Fuca? (1995). Since then, he's written a novel a year, including 1999's Last Ditch. And Ford assures his readers that more Leo stories are on the way.
If The Deader the Better isn't a great book, it's at least a good one. Enjoyable and entertaining, it provides a neat balance of modern sensibilities, good old-fashioned action, smart writing and some truly distinctive characters. A book just shouldn't go down so easily. But this one does, in large part because of Leo Waterman. He's such a blast, I'm curious to know how he handles himself back on his home turf of Seattle.
So, even as the writer part of me is green with envy of Ford, I'll be tracking down and reading the rest of his series in the very near future.
The reader part of me says, "The sooner the better." | March 2000
Kevin Burton Smith is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television and other media. He lives in Montreal, and is feeling a bit better now, thank you.