Heavy on the Dead, by G.M. Ford*****

Leo Waterman is one of my favorite detectives, but the opening of this twelfth entry finds him trying to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. In Soul Survivor, which precedes this one, Leo and his bodyguard, Gabe more or less destroyed a white supremacists’ compound in Idaho, and now they are both wanted men. They’ve traveled as far south as they can from their mossy, misty Seattle homeland without leaving the country, but even in Southern California, trouble follows them.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer, and of course to author G.M. Ford, whose annual entries in this entertaining series have become one of the best parts of summer.

It’s a tricky thing, braiding dark social issues with humor, and Ford does it expertly. At the outset, Leo and Gabe find the body of a dead child on the beach. They are trying not to be noticed, but they can’t just leave him there. As the story progresses, cop Carolyn Saunders quietly encourages Leo to dig further into the incident, because the official story smells fishy; she can’t do it without risking her job, but Leo is retired, and as long as he can stay out of view of his would-be assassins, he can pretty much do as he likes. When the story concludes, the role of Saunders is left open. She may be back, or she may not. Her role here is to advocate that Leo stand on the side of justice but within sane limits; this is a role previously occupied by Leo’s ex-girlfriend, Rebecca. The real fun is had when Leo and Gabe team up, since neither one of them gives a single shit about their social standing or, when it comes down to it, their own personal safety.

As far as I know, the character of Gabe, a sidekick with loyalty, heart, and the tenacity of a pit bull, is the first gender-fluid character to show up regularly (okay, twice so far) in a long-running series. I love this character.

A longstanding hallmark of the Waterman series is the large yet sometimes invisible homeless population. This was true in 1995 when Ford published Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca, and that was before homelessness burgeoned and became a national issue. As far as I know, Ford is the first to feature homeless people in every book of the series; although his characters are often quirky and sometimes bizarre, they are ultimately human beings possessed of worth and dignity. I’ve believed every one of them, and so it’s no surprise that I believe the man with the barcode tattooed on his forehead, the one that bites Leo when he collides with him while running from cops. I like how this thread of the story resolves, too.

As the plot moves forward, we have assassins chasing the assassin that is chasing Leo, and it is simultaneously suspenseful and hilarious. This is important, because the crimes that are uncovered in pursuit of the truth about the dead child on the beach are dark indeed. In less skilled hands, the issue of human trafficking could well trip my ick-switch, that boundary line each of us possesses where the sordid but compelling central focus of a detective story suddenly becomes too sickening to be fun anymore; but the author’s less-is-more instinct is on point, and so once we touch that hot stovetop, we withdraw and move on to other things, circling back—briefly again—at its conclusion.

Anyone that reads the genre unceasingly across decades develops a mental list of overworked character and plot devices that we never care to see again; at the same time, a badass writer can take one of those elements and make it seem brand new and shiny. For me, the place where so many protagonists arrive, the one where they are knocked out, or drugged, or simply overpowered and tossed into the back of a truck (or van, or car) is one that can make me close a book. Nope; done.  But in this instance, the truck abduction is a critical component, and to try to carry off the climax and conclusion in any other way would be artificial and most likely hamper the pace. But to aspiring writers: Ford is an experienced professional; don’t try this in your book.

This book will be for sale July 23, 2019, and earlier entries in the series are selling digitally for a buck each. Get your plastic out now; you can thank me later. Highly recommended.

The Disappeared, by Roger Scruton***

thedisappearedThe Disappeared was published in UK, and is now available to readers in the USA. Scruton shines a spot light on victims of domestic violence, trafficking, and rape. It’s a timely issue, and no one can read his story and walk away unmoved. Thanks go to Bloomsbury Reader for inviting me to read and review the DRC free in exchange for an honest review. This book is available to the public tomorrow, February 26.

The stories evolve around three women’s stories; we have Sharon, Muhibbah, and the reader is the third, with the narrative switching to the second person, a woman being abducted and raped on board a ship: “…you are nothing but female meat.”

The default for the second-person character is female, which I found gutsy and laudable. Unfortunately, positive treatment of women in this novel begins and ends here…and the second-person character is going to be raped right away.

Justin and Stephen are the two goodhearted men that are trying to assist Muhibbah and Sharon, both of whom are being cruelly abused at home. In each case, it is an immigrant that is doing the abusing. And here I winced.

On the one hand, I can see that Scruton is letting us know that the cultural mores of Islam should not be considered a legitimate excuse for domestic abuse. He clearly can’t do that without including a Muslim woman. Yet if we could have some positive depiction of a Muslim individual somewhere within the text to cut across the stereotype that is so widespread, and which this novel tends to embrace, it would make for better literature and a fairer accounting. Because not all Muslim families hurt their women. I have taught Muslim girls in Seattle that are well educated and whose parents permit them to choose what their futures will hold. Scruton’s depiction of only sneaky, violent, and abusive Muslims makes for a two dimensional telling, which is a shame, because his academic background and word-smithery indicate he is capable of better things.

The central part of the novel slows, and here the plot drags when the writer tries to do too much with a single story. Justin lapses into philosophical musing, which would perhaps work for mainstream fiction or romance genres, but not as much for a suspenseful, missing-woman mystery or thriller. The character worries about the environment, and a lot of detail is given to wind farms and solar panels that not only fails to move the plot forward, but brings all action to a halt. He loses himself in heavy metal music, and several pages are suddenly devoted to hard rock. What? Why? Scruton is by trade a philosopher above all else, but to write a strong thriller, the message has to be driven home through story only. A drifting inner narrative in the midst of what has been action, action, and more action leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Toward the end of the novel, the pace quickens once more, and ultimately the three narratives are braided together at the story’s end in a way that is masterful.

Spoiler: don’t read past this point if you want the ending to be a complete surprise.

I find myself perturbed at the gender stereotypes that seem to belong to another era. Women here are either victims, sex objects, or both. The only female professional is one that steps in as a bureaucrat and foils the rescue effort one of our two male heroes is attempting. In addition, I found myself wondering why neither man can use his position and authority to lend comfort and aid without either becoming sexually involved with the girl or woman he is trying to help, or wanting to do so. The 16 year old girl that can’t get over her crush on the older male teacher and immediately drops her clothes for him despite his reticence sounds like something out of a men’s magazine. No, no, and no.

Scruton is an experienced writer, and is eloquent in painting a portrait of abused women hidden in plain view in the major urban centers of Western, developed nations. If he can cut across stereotypes and introduce greater complexity as he develops his characters, the next novel will be even better.