You just can't trust the fashions in hard-boiled detective fiction.
For the past few years, there's been a decided trend toward more sensitive heroes and less gratuitous violence in American crime fiction. Heavyweight authors from coast (John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker et al.) to coast (Arthur Lyons, Joe Hansen et al.) have been laboring mightily to refine their detectives' sensibilities, to motivate their violent deeds and to make them ponder existential matters before bashing in villains' bridgework.
And then along comes a guy like Ted Wood, a British-born Canadian writer who writes precisely the kind of broad-shouldered macho stuff we thought had passed out of fashion. Whichever of life's imponderables are putting Travis McGee through midlife angst, they don't seem to have spread north of the border to Murphy's Harbour, the small resort town out of which Wood's detective, Reid Bennett, operates.
To be more precise, Murphy's Harbour is where Bennett, a one-man police force, operated in his first two outings, "Dead in the Water," which won Wood the 1983 Scribner's Crime Novel Award for best first mystery, and "Murder on Ice," a sturdy sequel that proved he was no flash-in-the-pan talent. In "Live Bait," Wood has shifted his locale to Toronto, which deprives Bennett of the chance to jump in his canoe and go pike fishing for inspiration on a case, but which opens up his opportunities to show how tough he can be.
And tough is what it's all about in Toronto, where Bennett had been a cop for nine years before packing it in for sleepy Murphy's Harbour. His homecoming assignment for a buddy with a big security firm turns mean and ugly from the very first line. ("The short one had a two-by-four in his hands.") After dispatching the short one and his big chum -- a couple of hired heavies who have been trashing construction sites around the city -- Bennett turns his attention to the hardball players behind the scenes. There is a rich assortment of these villains, from a Mafia loan shark and his bully-boys to an elusive hunchbacked lawyer with connections to an Asian gang of deadly kung-fu artists.
Here's how Bennett describes his remarkably efficient style of violence: "What I am is a well-trained scrambler, versed in the unarmed combat techniques they teach in the U.S. Marines." Wood makes much of his hero's Vietnam combat experience in this heavy-action plot, using it to define his lone-wolf fighting techniques and antisocial attitudes. Instead of working with a human sidekick, Bennett uses an attack dog named Sam, a German shepherd trained to go for the vital parts, without wasting time, as most buddies would, with shooting the breeze about the wife's nagging or the kids' grades at school. And instead of falling for conventional western girlish beauty, his manly interests are aroused by an Asian woman who reminds him of a lover he lost in Saigon.
A man like that is not too inclined to brood over the social ambiguities of the criminal justice system or the psychological roots of recidivist criminals. Give the guy a hunk of meat for his dog and a gang of karate killers to tear up, and he's happy.
Which is not to say that Wood writes by scrawling graffiti on alley walls. For all its ruggedness, there is a cool, almost clinical precision to his prose. (My favorite Ted Wood line, a description of the impact of a Magnum bullet -- "It would pulp her, flinging her torn meat around the cabin like dishrags" -- comes from "Dead in the Water.")
Although Wood doesn't go in for the wise-guy humor that characterizes a lot of American hard-boiled fiction, occasionally he's unintentionally funny to an American reader. For one thing, Bennett never seems to have any trouble finding an empty meter spot for parking his car. And when he calls the Toronto cops to clean up after a bloody scene, he not only gets the station, but "there were two cars at the door in thirty seconds."
It's a foreign country, after all.