Sunday, December 05, 2021

A Double Loss: Ford and Waterman

There’s no great mystery here. Due to conflicting editorial responsibilities, I have fallen terribly behind in acknowledging the deaths of people who made important contributions to the world of crime and thriller fiction. I failed to note the passing of author Caroline Roe in mid-November, and the loss of best-seller Wilbur Smith around that same time. I bookmarked the obituaries of “distinguished mystery scholar” LeRoy Lad Panek, novelist John Malcolm, Ian Fleming biographer John Pearson, and TV writer/producer Arthur Weingarten, but never said any final words about them on this page.

I don’t wish the same to be true of G.M. “Jerry” Ford, creator of the Seattle-based Leo Waterman private-eye series, who reportedly perished on December 1. Ford was 76 years old. His byline sounded like a merger of Detroit car manufacturers, and the fact that his first name was “Gerald” led him to be confused with a certain former U.S. president notorious for his clumsiness. However, G.M. Ford earned a distinctive reputation over the last quarter century.

According to a fine remembrance in the Seattle Mystery Bookshop blog, the future author was born on July 9, 1945, in Everett, Massachusetts. Wikipedia says his father died when he was young, so he was brought up mostly by his secretary-mother. Ford later attended Nathaniel Hawthorne College (now defunct) in Antrim, New Hampshire, and then Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, leaving the latter institution with a master’s degree in 18th-century literature. Subsequently, as he told me when I interviewed him for January Magazine in 1999, he “taught English, Language Arts—whatever it was being called that week—in high school through university levels, for 20-some-odd years.” He joked about that academic experience having taught him “that what I didn't want to write were art novels: 300 pages of well-crafted prose in which absolutely nothing happens to people we don’t care about, anyway.” Instead, in the early 1980s Ford moved to Seattle, Washington, and tried his hand at detective fiction.

His first novel, 1995’s Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?, introduced the man who would become his longest-running protagonist, underachieving gumshoe Waterman, one of several fictional P.I.s operating in Seattle at the time. Ford described his man to me as “one part Travis McGee, one part Fletch, and one part Spenser. He is a perpetual adolescent; his behavior is often dictated by the fact that he knows he's coming into serious amounts of money on his 45th birthday. Leo is only dangerous if you threaten him or his, at which point, he can get violent in a hurry. He speaks with my voice and shares my general attitudes. In general, however, Leo’s a much nicer character than I am.”

Wanda Fuca was nominated for several prominent prizes, among them an Anthony Award and the Shamus Award for Best First Novel. It was soon followed by other Waterman works, such as Cast in Stone (1996), which the author once said was his favorite; The Bum's Rush (1997), a book that was originally titled Pigeon Shit Shuffle, much to his publisher’s consternation; Slow Burn (1998) and Salvation Lake (2016). The 12th and final Waterman yarn was 2019’s Heavy on the Dead. Meanwhile, Ford debuted a second series lead, Seattle reporter and true-crime writer Frank Corso, in 2001’s Fury, chasing that with 2002’s Black River (which won the Spotted Owl Award) and A Blind Eye (2003). The concluding Corso novel—his sixth—was Blown Away, released in 2006. Ford’s résumé also featured a trio of standalone thrillers, the most recently released of those being Threshold (2015).

During the two decades since I first interviewed him for January Magazine, I think I saw Jerry Ford only a couple of times, at Bouchercons, our last meeting being at the 2010 event in San Francisco. He could be gruff, but he always seemed approachable and funny, and he was a great storyteller. While I enjoyed some of his Corso thrillers, I shall miss most of all his Waterman adventures, which were eccentric, funny, and heartfelt in near equal measures.

1 comment:

Kim Grant said...

Just reading the Leo Watterman series now, which is truly exceptional. I googled the reason for the 12 year gap between 'The Deader The Better' and 'Thicker than Water' which led me to your blog announcing his death. I'm so sorry to hear this. What an interesting writer.