RARA-AVIS: Ford vs. Riggs

From: Mark Sullivan ( DJ-Anonyme@webtv.net)
Date: 27 Apr 2001

I recently read two books which make for an interesting contrast when trying to figure out the nature of hardboiled/noir. They were Last Ditch by G.M. Ford and Dead Letter by John R. Riggs. I'm a fan of both authors and have read several other books in each of their series.

On the face of it, Ford's book would seem to be the hardboiled one. The book is a first person narration by Seattle private eye Leo Waterman. Leo feels compelled to investigate a decades-old murder in which his dead father, a corrupt city politician, is implicated. Everyone, including the rest of his family, wants him to leave it alone. During the course of his investigation, Leo must examine his memories of his father, learning a number of things about him he'd rather not know. Although they are not as evident in this book, Leo usually employs his very own crew of Very Irregulars, a bunch of borderline homeless drunks, who neither want nor accept sympathy from anyone. They are perfect undercover operatives since most people have trained themselves not to notice street people.

Riggs's Garth Ryland lives in a small town in Wisconsin. He is the editor/owner of the Oakalla Reporter. The series features a number of recurring town characters and a lot of driving around on rural roads in the quirky car Garth inherited from his grandmother. Garth receives help and information from Ruth, his feisty elderly housekeeper who is a clearinghouse on town gossip.

So Ford's series shoud be the hardboiled one and Riggs's cozy, right? Hell, the latter sounds like it could be a CBS mystery, complete with Angela Lansbury in the role of Ruth. However, the voices of the two writers reverse the expected feel.

Ford's books can be laugh out loud funny. Leo is one of the more amusing smartass PIs. The drinking scenes with "The Boys" are downright hilarious, drawing you into the joking camaraderie, making likeable, defined individual characters out of these people most would overlook. So even if the books deal with ingrained city corruption, spousal and child abuse, generations-old secrets, etc., Ford's tone casts out the shadows of what could be Ross Macdonald's world. Now that I think of it, Ford absurd sense of humor reminds me a little bit of Jonathan Latimer, although Ford's character most certainly show the effects of their drinking.

The smalltown Garth Ryland series is wrapped in shadows. There is much skulking around town after dark. And Garth uncovers just as much corruption in Oakalla as Marlowe did in Bay City. The first in the series, The Last Laugh, is particularly creepy as Garth tries to figure out if a man was buried alive and if he was, was it part of a practical joke gone dreadfully wrong or was it intentional? Along the way, Garth is forced to suspect his best friend, which is further complicated by the fact that he is in love with the suspect's wife. The whole series is written in a dark, borderline depressed voice. I guess you could shelf Riggs with the smalltown noir of K.C. Constantine (okay, Rocksburg isn't exactly a smalltown, but it ain't a big city, either) and Archer Mayor.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that for me the narrator's voice is at least as important as any checklist of character traits and/or settings in determining a noir sensibility.


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