BUM'S RUSH G. M. Ford

Avon, March 1998, $5.99

SLOW BURN G. M. Ford

Avon, March 1998, $20.00

Reviewed by Joe Obermaier

There are risks in reading two works by the same author back-to-back, especially in a mystery series. Too often, the charming quirks and idiosyncrasies of a series hero tarnish and dull, the setting descriptions grow repetitious, and the seams in formulaic plots begin to wear thin.

Thankfully, these fears proved unfounded with the latest two by G. M. Ford, and I've found myself jumping on his already crowded bandwagon. Bum's Rush and Slow Burn are the third and fourth books, respectively, in the delightfully off-beat Leo Waterman series.

Leo is a busy man. In Bum's Rush, he searches for one of his "Boys" (the homeless who work as his operatives) who's gone missing, breaks up the rape of an itinerant woman, tries to find a runaway librarian who has absconded with city funds, and finds himself investigating the overdose death of a rock star. Though it is difficult to weave together (seemingly) divergent plot lines without losing the reader in the twists and turns, G. M. Ford does it with ease and a great deal of humor.

His hero, Leo Waterman, a Seattle private investigator, is hard-boiled, but with a heart. His compassion and glib wit reminded me a lot of Robert B. Parker's Spenser. Leo has that same feel of a knight-errant out to save the day for the less fortunate, combined with a willingness to work outside the strict limits of the law when required. As a result, he gets tangled up in other people's messes rather easily.

At the heart of this story are the Boys, the "residentially challenged," down-on-their-luck vagrants who, in the best tradition of the Baker Street Irregulars, often assist Leo in his casework. What a clever idea, to use the Boys as "deputies" on stake-outs or in surveillance. The homeless have indeed, as Leo points out, become nearly invisible to our averted eyes. The Boys highlight G. M. Ford's mastery of characterization; he starts out anticipating our stereotypes of derelicts and drunks, but subtly adds pieces of personality and humanity until they evolve into characters as alive and vital as Leo himself.

On the downside, Bum's Rush has a little too much heavy drinking. Though it seems excessive even for the Boys, in all fairness, the drinking is not romanticized. Bum's Rush is also very violent. While this is the norm for the typical hard-boiled story, the comical antics contrast so markedly with the brutality, that I wonder how much of the violence was truly needed.

Leo Waterman returns to action in Slow Burn, when he is brought in to watch over an international culinary convention and insure that two rival steak-house owners don't disrupt the proceedings. When a prominent food critic with a connection to both camps is found murdered, Leo and the Boys become suspects, and they set off on the trail of the real killer.

Where Bum's Rush had its moments of humor, Slow Burn is laugh-out-loud funny. G. M. Ford has a gift for writing truly funny dialogue. How is this for an opening? "I never meant to break his thumb. All I wanted was a ride in the elevator." While, on occasion, it devolves into farce, Slow Burn never loses itself as a mystery. There are an abundance of suspects, several nice surprising twists in the plot, clues so subtly woven into the story that you're guaranteed to miss them, a barbecue scene that has to be read to be really appreciated, and a satisfying conclusion that includes the obligatory gathering of all the suspects in one room. There is even an epilogue of sorts, a dinner with the Boys that wraps things up in an amusing manner, and made me realize I'm going to miss those guys until Ford writes his next.

G. M. Ford is the type of author I prefer to discover much later in his career, when there is a much larger selection of titles just waiting to be discovered. It is better to delay the sad moment when there are no more books to be read. The dialogue is engaging, the characters, no matter how peripheral, are resonant and vibrant, and the setting rings with authenticity. But be warned, the hardest part of reading G. M. Ford is not to keep from laughing out loud, but resisting the impulse to read the funniest passages to everyone you know. I hope my wife forgives me.


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