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Spy Games 

The literary — and literal?— life of Ross Thomas

Thursday, Jun 26 2003
Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Back in 1986, I found myself at a midnight meeting in the baronial hall of a Mexican hacienda, ostensibly to form the first writers’ organization with members on both sides of the Iron Curtain — the International Association of Crime Writers. Around the table were the Soviet “Robert Ludlum” Julian Semionov (a reputed KGB colonel), Spanish novelist and chief theorist of Euro-communism Vazquez Montalban, and Mexican mystery writer Paco Taibo, himself rumored to have been personal friends with Che Guevara. I was a mere detective novelist/screenwriter from L.A., a bit over my head (maybe a lot over my head), and feeling that, without serious help, I could end up dupe of the year and probably blacklisted in the bargain. So when the assembled group asked me what other American writers should serve on the “Central Committee” (yes, they used that term — later modified to “Executive Committee”) of this fledgling organization, my first reaction was to say forget it, until the one obvious name jumped into my head: Ross Thomas. Not only was he one of the best U.S. crime novelists then, he was the only one I knew with what appeared to be the background to handle whatever cloak-and-dagger nefariousness lay before us.

Looking back now — in the midst of the reissue of Ross’ wise and witty thrillers — I realize I picked the right partner. Although he lived near me in Malibu, I didn’t know him personally. And I didn’t know the truth about that “background,” but I had my suspicions. Several of his books were set in the intelligence world, and I had heard something of his colorful past — stints as a “public relations” operative for labor unions, a “political consultant” in Washington, a “diplomatic correspondent” in Bonn (two years) and a “campaign organizer” in Nigeria of all places (the location of his novel The Seersucker Whipsaw). It was at least more than a remote possibility that he had been — like his predecessors Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Eric Ambler — a spook.

I didn’t ask about any participation he might have had in the “great game” when we met for the first time over lunch after my return from Mexico, nor did I question him about it over the numerous meals and voyages to international cultural events we shared until his death in 1995 — not even during one long night in Hemingway’s own Casa Botín in Madrid, when I was completely snackered on gin and sangria (Ross never drank). I just didn’t have the guts. Although he was unfailingly polite, generous to his colleagues and the possessor of a sense of humor dry as a Santa Ana, Ross Thomas was not the kind of man to whom you addressed direct personal questions. So that question lingers on. (When I queried Wall Street Journal mystery critic Tom Nolan about what I should ask Ross’ widow when I interviewed her for this article, he e-mailed me: “Find out if he was a spy!”)

The man I encountered over lunch in ’86 was like a courtly English gent from a London men’s club. But his accent was Middle American with the flat tones of his native Oklahoma, although his familial roots were from small-town Alabama. He had that same English diffidence, too, that I recognized more from novels than from personal experience, as if an E.M. Forster character had been captured whole and transferred from the playing fields of Eton to a Chinese restaurant in Santa Monica. His skin was pale and, like most men of a certain age, his hair thin up top. And there were those eyes, orbs from which the clichés “piercing” and “heavy-lidded” drew fresh meaning. I always had the feeling Ross was looking through me; still do as I write this piece about him. He was, after all, the author of The Fools in Town Are on Our Side. That title says it all about Ross Thomas.

I can still remember his laconic answer when I broached at that same lunch his possible participation in the International Association of Crime Writers. “I’m not a joiner,” he said. I learned soon that that was Ross’ way of saying yes — it was almost like dialogue from one of his books. So join he did, to the delight of the Soviets, who were pleased to have such a high-ranking Yankee scribe aboard, even though they persisted — despite being corrected several times — in calling him “Thomas Ross.” Perhaps that was just a natural confusion from his having two, to them foreign, first names, but Ross speculated on a couple of occasions, always with a wry smile, that it was just the way he was listed on his KGB file.

That was the atmosphere of our organization in those days before the Berlin Wall came down, the Eastern writers wondering who the Western writers really were and the Western writers wondering why they would care. I suspect the Russians were especially interested in Ross’ true identity, although in our meetings, whatever connections he once had, he always seemed the best sort of political liberal, empathic yet hardheaded in his opinions, and an outspoken supporter of free expression, sometimes to the consternation of our hosts.

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