Seattle, Washington’s status as a stomping ground for literary gumshoes goes back at least as far as 1948, when native-born author Louis Trimble—using the pseudonym Stuart Brock—published a paperback mystery with the delightful title Just Around the Coroner. The yarn starred a “tough” but “sensitive” shamus named Peter Cory, described by The Thrilling Detective Web Site as “a top op for Boldman Investigations.” Cory boasted of a “virginal, yet money-hungry girlfriend,” hotel gift shop operator Terry James, and more than his fair allotment of sardonic dialogue. He earned his fee in that debut outing, solving a rash of jewel thefts as well as a couple of awkward murders and might have gone on to anchor a series of his own. However, Trimble must have lost interest in the guy, because a few years later he auditioned another Seattle snoop-for-hire, Bert Norden, in Killer’s Choice (1956)—only to soon abandon him, too.
During the late 20th century, when a profusion of regional private investigators suddenly popped up in novels set amid such locales as Boston and Santa Fe, Cincinnati and Denver, Chicago and Detroit, Seattle kept pace. Among its homegrown talent were Richard Hoyt’s eccentric, darts-throwing PI, John Denson; Earl Emerson’s bicycle-enthusiast sleuth, Thomas Black; K.K. Beck’s lounge singer turned crime-solver, Jane da Silva; and Frederick D. Huebner’s Matthew Riordan, a lawyer whose cases usually found him engaged in his own clues-hunting legwork. They were joined later by Curt Colbert’s streetwise 1940s peeper, Jake Rossiter; the single-monikered Quinn, an ex-cop who appeared in a trio of books by Anne Argula (aka Darryl Ponicsan); and Eric Plume’s impecunious inquiry agent, Amber Eckart.
Most of those protagonists have since packed it in, but not so G.M. Ford’s Leo Waterman, who makes his new, ninth appearance in the alternately droll and dynamic Salvation Lake.
New Yorker-turned-Seattleite Jerry Ford introduced Waterman in 1995’s Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?, a tale that found his sobriety-challenged Everyman hero struggling to extricate an aging mobster’s granddaughter from a muddle of troubles involving both Pacific Northwest environmental terrorists and a toxic dumping scheme. That novel earned Ford Shamus and Anthony award nominations, and led him to concoct such sequels as Cast in Stone (1996, which he has pronounced his favorite entry in the series), Last Ditch (1999), and The Deader the Better (2000). Then, after a 12-year hiatus, during which the author produced half-a-dozen thrillers featuring a tarnished journalist-cum-true-crime writer, Frank Corso (Fury, A Blind Eye, etc.), in 2012 Ford shook old Leo from his slumber and sent him forth to tackle new mysteries in Thicker Than Water (2012) and Chump Change (2014).
We’ve learned a few things about Waterman during all this time, and he’s managed to evolve—if only in fits and starts.
He’s the son of a legendarily colorful Seattle politician, William H. “Wild Bill” Waterman, a mountainous former labor organizer who found great enjoyment in campaigning over the decades (he once appeared at a public debate clad as Mahatma Gandhi, with a goat in tow, and “when questioned about the ongoing issue of daylight savings time, he took a firm stand in favor of waltz time. ‘Three-four for evermore,’ was his slogan.”). Wild Bill took full advantage of whatever elective office he held—sometimes in legally dubious ways. Although the man has been tucked under a gravestone for many a moon now, Leo is still trying to come to terms with what his father did and didn’t do for him, even as he’s called upon on occasion to defend his notorious progenitor. One thing that turned out better than either Waterman anticipated was Wild Bill’s decision to place Leo’s not-inconsiderable inheritance in a trust until the latter turned 45 years old—which forced Leo to make a living, if only as an oft-confused PI, and saved him from flushing his legacy away in a fit of stupidity or generosity. As Leo remarks in Salvation Lake, “If my family crest had a motto, it would be: ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’”
In its write-up on Leo Waterman, The Thrilling Detective Web Site calls him “a hapless, rumpled, heart-on-his-sleeve, middle-aged, intelligent, grumpy smart-ass” who’s “partial to good beer and good music…” The man can also be an opinionated SOB. In one of his previous adventures, for instance, Waterman made clear his contempt for that most reviled of law-enforcement species, the parking meter attendant, by explaining that he’d bought a T-shirt “emblazoned with the words: ‘Meter Maids Eat Their Young,’ which I proudly wore whenever both circumstances and the weather permitted.” And in Ford’s new novel, the character shares his contempt for dogs in supermarkets: “Far as I’m concerned, any animal who considers toilet water to be an aperitif, or whose idea of hors d’oeuvres involves its own ass, ought to stay the hell outside.”
His judgment of the drunken and destitute tends to be more generous. In his capacity as a detective, Waterman periodically employs a select few among the enthusiastically pickled habitués of an old-time saloon called the Eastlake Zoo—some of them his father’s erstwhile cronies—as “field operatives,” knowing “the homeless had become so prevalent and so bothersome in Seattle that they were able to operate under a cloak of invisibility.…They could hang around places for days at a time without being noticed.” “The Boys,” as he calls that ragtag band of Irregulars, provide comic relief in these novels. Author Ford has learned, though, not to put them in any real danger. He sent one to a premature demise in his first novel, and as he told me later in an interview, “I got so many letters about that. Readers said, Don’t you dare kill any more bums. I wasn’t being PC enough.”
When we meet Waterman again in Salvation Lake, he’s finally passed the magical age of 45, received his long-awaited dough, and is living on the refurbished first floor of his parents’ old Tudor manse in the Emerald City’s Magnolia neighborhood. He is also trying to reconnect with the love of his life, King County chief medical examiner Rebecca Duval, whom he rescued, in Thicker Than Water, from dire circumstances created by her late husband.
Oh, and Leo has retired after 20 years in the PI game. Or that’s what he tells himself, anyway. Yet he’s drawn right back into it after a couple of unidentified male corpses—one in good physical condition, the other not—turn up in the trunk of a Zipcar, covered with an unsightly tweed overcoat once owned (and worn too proudly) by his infamous father. Police Lieutenant Timothy Eagan would like nothing better than to pin Waterman for these murders (“he hated my big ass the way Ahab hated that whale,” Leo quips), but Ford’s protagonist insists he hasn’t set eyes on that garment of Wild Bill’s in more than a decade and a half, not since his dad’s passing. Naturally, Eagan warns Waterman off this case…and just as naturally, curiosity quickly gets the better of our hero, as he starts trying to identify the dead men and suss out what led them to their fate. Only two things seem to connect the pair: a controversial local mega-church, Mount Zion Ministries, created by now-disgraced pastor Aaron Townsend, whose old-fashioned brand of religion includes women’s subservience to men; and a shrewd but mysterious woman whose trail has gone cold.
Before long, two bruisers turn their malevolent attention on Waterman as well as his wheelchair-bound computer-surveillance specialist, Carl Cradduck. After they train their sights, too, on Townsend and his family—who have gone to ground in a lakeside retreat east of Seattle—Leo first concocts a plan to make them believe one of their targets is already deceased (an operation that almost goes awry, thanks to the Boys’ involvement) and then finds himself in a too-familiar role, that of well-armed savior…or is it remorseless avenger?
Salvation Lake takes a few missteps. Its mix of humor and action seems awkward at times, and Ford doesn’t do enough here to explain why Aaron Townsend seems like one person when he’s fulminating at a pulpit and quite another when he’s in the bosom of his family. Furthermore, a subplot in which Waterman tries to defend a neighbor against her evidently abusive husband—only to wind up in a jail cell for his efforts—is too conveniently timed and too obvious in its conclusion. Nonetheless, this novel reminds us of the Waterman series’ consistent strengths. Ford layers the psyche of his usually capable PI with self-doubts, dishes up drippy Seattle’s foibles with relish, and is especially attuned to the plight of the city’s many homeless residents, who, he writes, live on a merry-go-round of troubles: “They’d get busted for something stupid, like pissing in public; they’d get a ticket and a court date and then not show up in court, which was a considerably more serious offense than alfresco weasel draining; and then they’d end up serving thirty days for failure to appear.” When I find that sort of honest compassion in a detective novelist’s work, no matter what else he or she may offer, I am inclined to return for more.